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“Proof” at New Century Theater

The New York smash hits the summer theater circuit

The Czech mathematician Kurt Gödel stated that just because something is true doesn’t mean you can prove it. That’s the dilemma facing the mathematician at the center of “Proof,” David Auburn’s Pulitzer and Tony-award-winning play. Catherine is a 25-year-old college dropout whose youth, gender and lack of formal training make it hard for her to be taken seriously in the rigorous arena of higher math. Well, no, not her youth-in fact, the point is made several times that all the great math minds have done their best work by their mid-20s and are all-but-washed-up before 30.

That was true of Catherine’s father, the greatest mathematical mind of his generation, who at an early age lost not only his edge, but his sanity. (And yes, there are strong echoes here of John Nash, the math genius whose schizophrenia was chronicled in “A Beautiful Mind.”) Catherine dropped out of school not because she couldn’t cut it, but because she needed to care for her father in their drafty old faculty house near the University of Chicago, where he once taught. This sacrifice has cost her a normal life, and some of her own identity. She has inherited her father’s mathematical gift, but also, possibly, his disposition to madness.

Catherine is a woman in a man’s field, a daughter in the shadow of a great man. Is she her father’s intellectual equal, a thinker and a person in her own right? Or is she a failure, or a fraud, or delusional? That’s not her father she’s conversing with, by the way, it’s his ghost-a presence born of memory and mourning in Catherine’s imagination. He died a week ago, and Catherine’s sister has come to Chicago for the funeral. Claire is the polar opposite of her turbulent sibling-level-headed and even-tempered where Catherine is moody and willful. Claire wants Catherine to come back with her to New York, where she can keep an eye on her-and maybe get some treatment for what Claire, too, fears might be inherited, er, instability, as she tactfully puts it.

Catherine’s search for validation turns on the disputed provenance of an elegant proof of a previously insoluble mathematical problem, found among her father’s notebooks. The discovery could be her salvation, or her undoing. It could also make the career of the young math professor to whom she gives the manuscript. Hal is a former student of Catherine’s father, and he instantly recognizes its importance.

In his production for New Century Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts, Jack Neary uses this character for comic relief. The guy is a self-confessed math geek, and Patrick Tangredi goes with that all the way, giving us a study in awkward self-consciousness. The other characters also get laughs in this serious but far from solemn play. Steve Brady is a gruff, acidic father whose tart comments never hide the tenderness he feels for his brilliant, troubled daughter, and Nicole Sypher’s Catherine has her share of barbed, bitter witticisms.

Neary’s staging is solid and serviceable, and so is Daniel D. Rist’s impressively realistic setting, a two-story house whose back porch looks over a scrubby yard and whose gray clapboards are dappled with sun and moonlight filtered through leafy trees. The production works, but stops one step shy of the nuances it needs to really sizzle. We need to side with Catherine, but we also need to sympathize with Claire’s frustrations over her exasperating sister, and despite Cate Damon’s sure-footed performance, we don’t. We need to believe that Hal is more than a callow nerd, and in Tangredi’s overly twitchy performance, that’s hard.

And we need to be uncertain about what’s really going on with Catherine. Genius or wannabe? Wrestling with reality or flirting with insanity? Sypher gives a persuasive and affecting performance-a passionate, volatile young woman with a brittle protective shell. But it would be even stronger if there were more doubt on the way to the proof.

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