Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Proof positive at Merrimack Rep

Keira Keeley and Colby Chambers ponder the music of the spheres.  Photo: Meghan Moore
As a self-appointed high priest in the sacred temple of the theatre, I know I'm supposed to look down my nose at dramatic "vehicles" - but shucks, who doesn't enjoy a spin every now and then in a finely-tuned theatrical machine?  Just as there's a secret thrill to the sound of all the doors in a Feydeau farce slamming at precisely the right time, so there's a melodramatic pleasure center at the bottom of every theatre-goer's brain that is forever waiting for a playwright to line his or her dramaturgical ducks all in a row - and then tump them over, one by one, like so many dominoes.

And then - oh, yeah, baby, yeah!!  The only trouble comes when people confuse the streamlined chassis on a gleaming new vehicle with something more; which has been the case, I'm afraid, with many a Broadway hit - including David Auburn's Proof  (now at the Merrimack Rep through April 14) which seems to take on Big Questions, but only uses them to set up finely-crafted conflicts that never even hint at Big Answers. 

Not that I mind, particularly in a production as smooth and assured as the one up at Merrimack.  Well, okay, I mind a little bit.  When one of the characters in Proof cries "The machinery!  I can feel it working!" (he's talking about his mathematical ability), I always feel like jumping up and shouting, "Yeah, so can I!!"  But that would be rude, I know (so I don't do it).  But I'm not silly enough to imagine that the various themes - the intellectual thrills (and ruthless competition) of math geekery, the guarded warfare of sibling rivalry, the tortured knots of father-daughter love - around which Auburn has sculpted his script amount to more than so many dramaturgical red herrings.

Still, herring makes for a tasty snack if it's done just right, and the cast at Merrimack seems to know precisely how to serve up Proof.  Auburn's script focuses on Catherine (Keira Keeley), the damaged daughter of a great mathematician who, in the now clichéd style of A Beautiful Mind, long ago succumbed to madness.  Catherine, herself a mathematical talent, became her father's caretaker instead, tending him in their decaying home in Chicago while her elder sister Claire (Megan Byrne) seemingly found fortune, if not fame, in New York.  The play opens, however, with the death of their unstable patriarch - and the hint that he may have passed on his curse, along with his other gifts, to his devastated younger daughter.

But wait, there's more - through the funeral games Auburn expertly threads a treasure hunt:  a mathematical acolyte of the Great Man arrives to hunt through his papers for intellectual gold, and at Catherine's direction, stumbles on a possibly paradigm-shifting thesis on number theory.  Catherine immediately claims the  "proof" as her own - but as she's already seeing Dad's ghost wandering around the premises, can her honesty, or sanity, be trusted?

You can see there's more than enough here for a skilled dramatist to spin a satisfying web of intrigue, and Auburn is more than up to the job.  His first act in particular snaps like clockwork; the second, it's true, loses some loft as we realize the playwright isn't going to deeply develop any of the issues he has so expertly raised.  But his knack for structure never deserts him - and frankly, this is such an unusual skill for a dramatist to have these days, we can forgive him the rest.

This is especially easy given the quality of most of the cast at Merrimack.  Keira Keeley seems to heartbreakingly suggest Catherine's instability without any apparent technique at all, and confidently turns on several unlikely emotional dimes without ever missing a beat; it's almost a perfect performance.  Hardly a step behind are the reliable Megan Byrne as the gently overbearing Claire, and new face Colby Chambers as the eager post-doc who morphs with agile speed from romantic lead to smooth operator to chief inquisitor (and back) as the gears of the script demand.  The one gap in the cast, I'm afraid, is Michael Pemberton, who invests Claire's brilliant father with a kind of bluff heartiness, and hardly  a trace of the psychological frailty that haunts his daughter.  Director Christian Parker, who clearly knows this play inside and out (he served as dramaturge on its original production) is wise to underplay this issue - still, without even its ghost shadowing the action, Catherine seems slightly untrustworthy in the wrong way.  Parker also perhaps misses a subtle dimension to the show's coda - which to my mind is most effective when it suggests that even in matters of "proof," a little faith is sometimes required.

Elsewhere the production is strong, but perhaps not in Merrimack's top tier.  Lauren Helpern's set gets the job done, for instance, but little more - there's no eccentric specificity to the decay of this quirky homestead.  The lighting, by Josh Bradford, and costumes, by Bobby Tilley, are more evocative - but I still sometimes longed for a richer showcase for these extraordinary performances.

No comments:

Post a Comment