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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Proof’ Returns to its Roots

The play is come full circle (with apologies to the

Bard). "Proof," the winner of the 2001 Tony Award and the

Pulitzer Prize, has returned to the George Street Playhouse for a

month-long engagement. It was at GSP where 33-year-old Chicago-born

David Auburn’s play first began the impressive journey that has taken

it from New Brunswick to Broadway and beyond.

It was the middle of the night in 1998 that GSP artistic director

David Saint first read Auburn’s play. "I was given the script

to read by a friend whose opinion I trust and began to read it at

midnight, Saint recalls.

Although the play had not yet been optioned or had any strings attached,

Saint couldn’t offer Auburn a full production until the following

year because the plays for the new season had already been selected.

It was then that Auburn’s new agent submitted the play to the Manhattan

Theater Club, which lost no time in putting into production, under

Dan Sullivan’s direction. The rest is history, but with a slight note

of regret for Saint.

Most regional theaters that produce new plays include a clause allowing

the originating theater to participate in future commercial runs.

Saint says that due to an oversight (not his, he says emphatically),

this clause was not included in the initial negotiations for "Proof."

"Nevertheless," he adds, "we are thrilled this extraordinary

play has returned to us for its New Jersey premiere."

Despite his having only artistic participation in "Proof,"

Saint began the workshop, a process that begins with the playwright,

actors, director, and a dramaturg sitting around a table and reading

the play line by line, scene by scene, seeing what need to be trimmed

or clarified. "Sometimes things change drastically and sometimes

subtly," says Saint. "With Auburn’s play, everything was going

along beautifully until the ending. That we had to fix." Auburn,

he adds, who had not had many of his plays produced, was eager to

do the work.

After two weeks of repeated readings and rewrites, "Proof"

was given three "bare bones" public performances at GSP. "Only

then," Saint says, "watching the audience response, seeing

what was landing and what was not, could we tool it and finish it.

A play doesn’t happen until it lives in front of an audience."

From New Brunswick, the play opened at the Manhattan Theater Club

in May, 2000, before transferring to the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway

where it opened in October, 2000. It enjoyed a 27-month, 917-performance

run, before closing January 5 of this year.

While "Proof" is only Auburn’s second full-length play, it

has become one of the most successful dramas of the last two decades.

His first full-length play, "Skyscraper," had a short Off-Broadway

run at the Greenwich House in 1997.

Whether it was luck or that the stars were in a particular alignment,

Auburn’s play arrived auspiciously on Broadway during a season that

owed as much to math and science as it did to art. British playwright

Michael Frayn was riding high with "Copenhagen," a play that

ventured into a world of physicists who equate their human behavior

to their understanding of particles that spin around the nucleus of

the atom.

Following in its trajectory was American playwright Auburn’s "Proof,"

which deftly filters an impassioned human drama through a world of

higher mathematics. Very different in theme and presentation from

the ultra-stylized "Copenhagen," "Proof" is more like

the solid, homey front-porch dramas of Lanford Wilson. The play’s

intelligence and wit awed audiences.

Although this lauded play observes three mathematicians and their

field of study, this aspect is secondary to the resolution of a parent-child

relationship, a blossoming romance, and the mystery that surrounds

the authorship of a revolutionary mathematical formula.

Saint said he responded immediately to Auburn’s style that he describes

as "sharp, crisp and clean." He was particularly taken with

the profound content in what is essentially a mystery. "I couldn’t

put it down and knew by 1 a.m. that I wanted to include it as part

of the premiere season of our Next Stage Festival."

While the production of "Proof" represents a round trip for

the play, it is the first time that English-born Michael Morris is

directing at GSP. Saint met Morris when he was the managing director

of London’s Old Vic Theatre, a job he held from 1997 to 2001. Morris

is currently resident director of the Ojai Playwrights Conference,

a playwrights’ summertime retreat in Ojai, California, devoted to

new play development by writers from around the nation. Morris, says

Saint, "has the fierce intelligence that this play needs."

Intelligence is the word that Saint uses again to describe

actor Ali Marsh, who played Tess in last season’s "The Sisters

Rosensweig" and will play the pivotal role of Catherine in "Proof."

Saint and I consider the different way that each of the three high-profile

actresses — Mary Louise Parker, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Anne

Heche — played the role of Catherine on Broadway. "Besides

being a very smart actor, Marsh is also much younger and will be even

more believable," he says, "as a 23-year-old whom we also see

in flashbacks as an 18-year-old."

Kelly McAndrew, who recently was seen in the Signature Theater’s production

of "Book of Days," will play her sister Claire. Brian Smiar,

who has been in the national tour of "Wit" with Princeton’s

own Judith Light, will play their father, Robert. Rounding off the

cast in the role of Hal, Robert’s protege and Catherine’s potential

love interest, is Eric Altheide, making his GSP debut. The design

team includes R. Michael Miller (setting), David Murin (costumes),

Christopher J. Bailey (lighting), and Haddon S. Kime (original music).

The steps by which "Proof" was discovered and prepared for

the big move to Broadway is a direct result of the development and

workshop process at the George Street Playhouse. It is an important

part of the artistic mission at GSP, as well as at other professional

regional theaters throughout the state. This method of discovering

and nurturing plays is essential in an economic climate that does

not allow lengthy tryouts on the road. Professional regional theaters

are the motor by which new and meritorious dramatic literature gets

a life.

"I’m trying to get Auburn to write another play for us," says

Saint. When I ask him what kind of day job Auburn has, Saint replies,

"Are you kidding? With `Proof’ he doesn’t need one." Then

Saint reminds me, "You can’t make a living in the theater, but

you can make a killing."

Despite the revenue that a participation agreement with "Proof"

would have provided GSP in this time of cutbacks, the theater has

been well represented artistically Off-Broadway with Anne Meara’s

"Down the Garden Paths," "The Spitfire Grill," and

the upcoming production of Anthony Clarvoe’s "Ctrl + Alt + Delete."

It wasn’t too long ago that Variety, the theater trade journal, cited

New Jersey as second only to California in producing new plays.

In the light of the recent and devastating proposal from Governor

McGreevey that all state funding for the arts in New Jersey be abolished,

including the elimination of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts,

it is important that he and the legislators be reminded that the $18

million distributed to the arts community returns just under $1 billion

to the state’s economy. Jeffrey Woodward, managing director of McCarter

Theater and president of ArtPride/NJ, the statewide advocacy organization,

was quoted in the Star Ledger: "We are a solution for the economic

problems, not a reason. We provide jobs, tax revenue, ancillary spending."

I asked Saint what would happen to its workshops and the touring theater

that brings five issue-oriented productions to more than 250 schools

and some 80,000 students a year without funding from the New Jersey

State Council on the Arts. "That remains to be seen, but can you

think of New Jersey without any theater," he replies.

Amid a World War II budget crisis, one of Churchill’s advisers urged

him to shut down all London’s theaters, concert halls, and art galleries

in the interest of the war effort. "Good God, man," the English

Prime Minister is said to have replied, "What the hell are we

fighting for?"

So we might say to our legislators, "What more `Proof’ do you

need?"

— Simon Saltzman

Proof, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue,

New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Opening night for the New Jersey premiere

of David Auburn’s play that runs to Sunday, March 16. $26 to $50.

Friday, February 21, 8 p.m.


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