Wise Guys

Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCRThe success of movies like A Beautiful Mind and plays like David Auburn's Pulitzer prize-winning Proof, now at South Coast Repertory, suggests there's something reassuring in the notion that all smart people are crazy. It excuses our own ignorance: we might be stupid, but at least we're not insane. But even mentally challenged math geniuses have families, and at some point, we all have to make peace with the madness at home.

Brittle, foul-mouthed Catherine (Emily Bergl) is the daughter of the brilliant but unstable University of Chicago mathematician Robert (Richard Doyle). After years of caring for her father, Catherine is burned-out, frustrated and skirting the border of mental illness herself. Her sister, the supercilious professional Claire (Christina Haag), is making plans to cart her off to New York for observation and care. Robert's former student, the earnest if awkward Hal (James Waterston), is going through the old man's papers, searching for further evidence of the radical mathematical insights that made Robert one of the leading figures in his field decades before. The discovery of a groundbreaking 40-page work on prime-numbers theory leads to a meditation on the various iterations of “proof”: proof of authorship, proof as a mathematical model, proof of love.

Occasionally, the math in Proof feels like a Macguffin, a convenient plot device for exploring the inner demons of a frustrated genius and a vehicle for some funny jokes about hard-partying mathematicians; ultimately, Auburn's play is less concerned with Big Ideas than, say, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. It's more an exploration of the complex connections between genius and madness, the quotidian burdens of family, the emotional challenges of caring for the mentally ill, and the onerous necessity of accepting the legacies—good and bad—bequeathed to us by our parents. And on that level, it works beautifully. Anchored by outstanding performances from a uniformly excellent cast and propelled by Michael Bloom's marvelously understated direction, it's an impressive display of theatrical craftsmanship. Despite a somewhat abrupt ending (with its rather high-handed dismissal of Catherine's potential illness), Proof is, in the end, a model of economy, blessedly free of intellectual digressions or emotional histrionics. Like beautiful mathematics, it's elegant, streamlined, without any wasted steps.

Proof at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 N 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 6. $19-$54.

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