By Jennifer Bussell

We can learn one of two things from David Auburn’s Proof: one, U of C humor is not as highbrow as we think it is; or two, Proof doesn’t contain that much math humor.

I prefer to think that Auburn, an alumnus and former VOICES writer, managed to lend University of Chicago specifics to a snappy story that centers on the theme of one’s potential for greatness.

25-year-old Catherine (Chelsea Altman) has spent the past several years caring for her father, Robert (Robert Foxworth), a University of Chicago mathematician who, after brief and brilliant career, succumbs to mental illness. The outcome, as we find out, of Robert’s eventual death, is the meeting of Catherine’s sister, Claire (Tasha Lawrence), and Hal (Stephen Kunken), one of Robert’s former students, at the family’s Hyde Park home. As Hal digs through the piles of Robert’s notebooks for coherent math, Catherine is left wondering how much of Robert’s genius—and how much of his instability—she inherited.

Proof’s story, while it appears to be part of the A Beautiful Mind fad to bring math professor-life to mass theatricals, diverges markedly from the romanticized, overacted, Oscar-winning formula of the latter. Proof is carefully crafted to let sarcastic one-liners zing, imbuing the characters with intelligence and vulnerability. More important, though, than what is said is what the characters leave unsaid. Sparse dialogue pours forth from those characters with the authority of the consciously intelligent, while relationships remain anything but sure.

In playing Catherine, Altman does an admirable job imitating Mary-Louise Parker, the gritty originator of the role from Proof’s Broadway opening. However, her deviations from Parker’s protrayal subtract rather than add to Catherine’s persona. The extremes in outbursts and tenderness Altman brings to the role make Catherine less coherent but not less stable, and certainly less likeable. Kunken as Hal, in the meantime, still carries too much of the Broadway actor’s swagger while at the same time trying to pull off too much timidity to be a believable Chicago graduate student in math.

Nevertheless, the national tour production opened to Chicago audiences with as much gusto as the original version on Broadway.

Auburn’s background in comedy as a member of Off-Off Campus and hefty academia as a U of C undergrad serve him well; Proof pulls off nerd jokes with authority. For instance, Auburn remembers bands blasting their rock anthems from the roof of Eckhart Hall. In the play, Hal’s band of math graduate students plays a song called “i: The Imaginary Number.” And, as Hal describes it, “They just stand there and don’t play anything for three minutes.”

However, nothing in the play really necessitates that Robert be at the University of Chicago. And, as much as some here may detest or delight in a supposed nerdy reputation, the truth is that Proof needed a university, and Auburn wrote about the one he knew best.

The main nod to the University comes in John Lee Beatty’s set design. Beatty, who designed both the orignal Broadway set and the one for the tour, visited Hyde Park on Auburn’s suggestion, and the entire play is acted on the archetypal local back porch. In New York, it was immediately recognizable as Hyde Park, and here in Chicago, nothing else would have seemed appropriate.

While Auburn himself sees Hyde Park as the obvious setting for his story and the U of C as an essential component, he has adapted Proof for the screen, and the movie version will not necessarily be filmed at the University.

Speaking of which, Miramax Films recently purchased the movie rights to Proof. Production, which will not begin until 2003, will be done by Hart Sharp Entertainment, which produced Boys Don’t Cry.

Proof won the 2001 Tony Award for best play as directed on Broadway (and in the national tour) by Daniel Sullivan and the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It will be running until April 7 at the Shubert Theater downtown.