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"Proof" suffers from slight miscalculation

It's all in the execution, or so they say. David Auburn's "Proof," the most anticipated play in Heritage Repertory Theatre's summer season, can be thankful for that. HRT has done an impressive job of staging this much-hyped, Pulitzer Prize-winning play, despite the fact that Auburn's script is thinner than the play's critical acclaim might suggest.

It's an enjoyable show with the professional polish that justifies the ticket price ($25, $21 senior, $14 student), but it doesn't quite live up to expectations.

Auburn attempts to integrate cutting-edge mathematics into a dramatic script, or so the play's promoters would have us believe. Hence the many-layered title, "Proof." Indeed, the title might be the smartest part of Auburn's script, which tries to address themes of stability, uncertainty, proof and risk in ways that relate to both mathematics and simple humanity.

The action hinges around Catherine, played deftly by University alumna Sarah Dandridge, the 25-year-old daughter of Robert (Martin A. Beekman), a brilliant but mentally unstable University of Chicago mathematician. The play spends almost its entire duration developing a central conflict: To what degree has Catherine inherited her father's genius, or madness or both?

Catherine has to negotiate this question amid the influence of her well-intentioned but controlling sister Claire (Ginna Hoben) and the attentions of Hal (Jason Odell Williams), her father's former student and her new lover. Claire comes to dote on Catherine in the aftermath of Robert's death, in an attempt to preserve a fragile sense of stability. But Hal, who has come to the house to go over Robert's papers, destabilizes affairs both in his affections for Catherine and in his discovery of an unpublished, potentially earth-shattering mathematical proof.

The play, then, sets up two plots, each of which have a major but not devastating flaw. The first asks who wrote the proof -- Catherine or Robert - and sets out to explore the fine line between brilliance and insanity. The problem here is that when Auburn attempts to appropriate the domain of higher mathematics for his dramatic purposes, he appears to be way over his head.

In this respect, "Proof" is a paltry imitation of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," which staged a similarly ambitious use of specialized scientific material in the field of atomic physics. The difference, of course, is that Frayn handles this difficult body of knowledge with the effortlessness that marks brilliant art. Frayn understands the science that he employs and its symbolic significance, or appears to, and he puts it to effective use.

The fictionalized conversations between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg make a sparkling dramatic script, even though most of what they're saying is beyond the average audience member's understanding.

Auburn seems to have appreciated the depth and meaning that Frayn found in the intersection of a highly technical discipline and the demands of ordinary, personal relationships and decided to use the same model in a more modern setting.

But if Auburn has an understanding of higher mathematics, his script surely doesn't communicate it. It's filled with conspicuously vague references to the math that's supposed to be at the center of the conflict. Auburn falls victim to the classic writer's crutch of telling instead of showing.

This flaw pushes the weight of the drama onto the second plot, which concerns itself with the characters as people, bound in a number of messy ways - Catherine and Hal, by the bonds of newfound romance and professional ambition, Catherine and Clare by the grudging commitments of sisters and daughters, Catherine and Robert by the bitter demands of family amid hardship. This is by far the more interesting side of the script, and the HRT actors handle it remarkably well.

But while the potential for interesting conflict and probing insight into the dilemmas of blood is substantial, Auburn seems to have gotten distracted from this quality material by all of his hand-waving about math. The play's emotional center is solid and compelling, but it lacks an emotional periphery - development and depth.

At play's end, we are hardly any further along in our attempt to solve the main question - is Catherine crazy, or a genius, or both? - than we were two hours earlier. Of course, that itself can be the point. But it does leave one with the feeling that Auburn has tried to take us through a long, complicated proof, only to dump us right back at the beginning - the blunder of someone who has bitten off more math than he can chew.

"Proof" appears five more times in HRT's rotating repertory schedule: July 24, 27, 30, and August 2 at 8 p.m., and August 3 at 2 p.m.

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