Who knew two hours of math could be so compelling?
Park Slope’s Gallery Players have found a successful formula for great live theater in their new production of “Proof,” the David Auburn play that set Broadway on fire in 2000.
Half of the equation is a calculated risk in subtracting the Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s customary elaborate backdrop in favor of a minimalist, mostly abstract set. The action all takes place on the front porch of large, rambling house near the University of Chicago, where our main protagonist Catherine has just turned 25 and is coming to terms with the recent death of her father Robert, a brilliant mathematician like her, who also became mentally ill around her age. Most productions of “Proof” — not least of all the 2005 film version — opt for a large, realistic recreation of the Hyde Park house facade. But the Gallery Players’ austere staging — a few chairs and some ambiguous white screens — successfully draws the audience further into the intimate family drama playing out on the theater’s small stage and allows the actors to set the scene.
The other half is, of course, those actors, a strong quartet who collectively strike a nice balance between the play’s weighty themes of death and insanity and moments of humor and romance.
As Catherine, Justine Campbell-Elliott deserves much of the credit. We see the play through her eyes, but never quite know how reliable they are. Catherine, and those around her, worry she is headed for the same mental breakdown her father suffered. One minute, she seems the only rational person on stage, the next, we’re questioning everything she has ever said. But Campbell-Elliott keeps the audience firmly in Catherine’s corner through the abrupt twists and turns, not just in her character’s mental state, but also through the play’s sharp transitions between light and darkness, often multiple times within the same scenes. It is a lot of heavy lifting, but she makes it look effortless.
The whole ensemble is great, too. David Gazzo brings a wealth of humor and heart to the production with his energetic and endearing portrayal of Hal, a dorky young mathematician hanging around the house in the hopes of scoring one last piece of brilliance in Robert’s many manic notebooks (and also maybe his daughter). Bonnie Wickeraad casts a sympathetic light on Catherine’s usually hard-to-like sister Claire. And John Blaylock is every bit the brilliant but tortured Robert, successfully inhabiting the ambiguous space between madness and genius.
I’m a theater critic, not a math whiz, but by my calculations, this version of “Proof” proves the theory that less is often more.
“Proof” at the Gallery Players [199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope, (718) 595–0597, www.galleryplayers.com]. Thursdays to Sundays through Nov. 9 at various times. $15–$18.