By the time that David Auburn’s Proof closed on Broadway in 2003 after over 900 performances, it was the biggest nonmusical hit in two decades, a record it still holds today. (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came close, racking up 800 performances in its two-year run.)
Brimming with rich characters and good old family drama, Proof was beloved by audiences and critics alike, winning both the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s also loaded with scenes that are at once compulsively watchable and—for the actors—insatiably actable. Proof has been frequent fodder for acting classes from the instant the script was published, and it’s not hard to see why.
But for all of its accessibility and entertainment value, it is also an alluringly nuanced work that requires nuanced direction. For it to succeed and be persuasive, its characters must be filled out gently with varied brushstrokes, never resorting to obviousness. Proof must also unravel like a mystery, all the while never abandoning the stark fragility of the central character.
Unfortunately for the current revival playing at Central Square Theater, which will run through Feb 18, it doesn’t have any of those things.
This Nora Theatre Company/Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT production, under the indifferent direction of Michelle M. Aguillon, misses the mark on nearly every conceivable level, which is in itself an achievement given that Proof is so well-constructed that it’s generally a plug-in-and-go type of play.
Catherine (Lisa Nguyen) is left listless, confused, and brutally depressed following the death of her father, Robert (Michael Tow), a brilliant, renowned mathematical genius whose final years were marred by madness. Catherine inherited a great deal of her father’s mathematical ability, but at present she’s more concerned with whether or not she also inherited his madness. Having put her own education to the side so that she could care for her father, she has no idea what comes next for her.
Her older sister, Claire (Cheryl Daro), has flown in from New York for the funeral and to help wrap up her father’s affairs—but there’s a lot of sisterly resentment to work out, particularly since Claire was nowhere to be found when their father was deteriorating. Certain that Catherine cannot take care of herself (did I mention she’s a mess?), Claire wants to take her back to New York so that she can take care of her. There’s nothing left for Catherine in Chicago, Claire thinks, especially since she’s already decided to sell their father’s house.
Hal (Avery Bargar), one of Robert’s students, has been helping to sort through the piles of notebooks he left behind, just to make sure that nothing extraordinary has been overlooked. There’s also something brewing between him and Catherine, and after they spend the night together she finally trusts him enough to give him a key to a locked drawer in her father’s desk.
What he discovers is a proof that is—if verified—historic. But when Catherine proclaims herself and not her father to be the author of the proof, neither Hal nor Claire is convinced, something from which an already broken and tormented Catherine may never fully recover.
It is easy to play Catherine as a weepy depressive, and thankfully that’s something that Nguyen avoids in her portrayal. But she also misses all of the fragility, brokenness, humor, and flirtatious magnetism that makes Catherine one of the great enigmas of the last 20 years of American drama. Nguyen barely scratches the surface, and all of her line readings feel perfunctory rather than organic. But in the play’s final scene, she is remarkable, which suggests that her bland performance is a question of poor direction rather than ability.
Michael Tow and Cheryl Daro imbue Robert and Claire with a similar laboredness that feels artificial, keeping the audience aware at all times that they are acting. Only Avery Bargar’s Hal is convincing. Flawlessly natural and awfully funny, it’s the only truly professional-grade performance on stage.
Still, there is some merit to this production. Nora Theatre Company artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner should be commended for opting not to revive Proof with another all-white cast, as is almost always the case. She has opted for the family here to be portrayed by actors of Asian descent as well as hiring an Asian director. At a time when representation is vital and whites are overwhelmingly given more work in the theater, it’s a refreshing and necessary thing.
PROOF. THROUGH 2.18 AT CENTRAL SQUARE THEATER, 450 MASS. AVE., CAMBRIDGE. CENTRALSQUARETHEATER.ORG