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  Written by
  Chris Smith

  Photograph by
  Adam Nadel, AB'90

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Burden of Proof

PHOTO:  Playwright David AuburnPlaywright David Auburn comes to terms with his hit Broadway debut

David Auburn rests his forearms on the table at the Bergen Street Kitchen, a cozy brunch spot just blocks from his apartment in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn. He hovers over a plate of fruit he ordered out of politeness, so the interviewer, who hadn't eaten yet, would not have to dine alone. He talks like a man who is not used to eating with a tape recorder on the table.

Just one week ago, Auburn's play Proof premiered at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway to sold-out audiences and critical acclaim. Reviewers ladled words like "exhilarating" and "engrossing" upon the show, one even calling it a play for which such words were invented. Auburn is modest, but he can't hide his excitement at this sudden change in his situation. "I dumped all my friends and got new friends," he jokes.

Six months ago, Auburn, AB'91, was a relative unknown. His last play, Skyscraper, lasted only one month at an Off-Broadway house in 1997, but his success with Proof has introduced him to a whole new level of exposure. "I'm just glad the show's being seen, and in this beautiful theater," he says, doing everything he can to push the attention away from his own talent. "We got really lucky. We have a great cast, terrific designers, and Dan Sullivan is probably the best director in America."

Proof is a heartbreaking drama hiding behind a thin gauze of mathematical theory. Mary Louise Parker plays Catherine, a sarcastic, insecure math prodigy who gave up undergraduate life at Northwestern to care for her mentally ill father, a revered University of Chicago mathematician. The play opens on the eve of her 25th birthday, just after her father has died and the night before the funeral. Set entirely on the back porch of their Hyde Park row house-so accurately reconstructed that the sight of it makes you want to put on gloves and a scarf-the action alternates between scenes with Catherine and her dead father, Robert, in the form of flashbacks and dreams; with Catherine and Hal, her father's student, who is rummaging through Robert's 103 notebooks of scribbles from the final years of his dementia; and with Catherine and her sister, Claire, who arrives from New York to sell the house and take Catherine away.

The centerpiece of the play is Catherine's denial that she inherited her father's brilliance and her fear that she will be overcome by the mental illness that he began to exhibit in his twenties. The title refers to the mathematical proof (the computational equivalent to Einstein's theory of relativity) that Hal discovers among Robert's notebooks, which may or may not have actually been written by Catherine.

Although critics applaud Auburn's talent for making the audience empathize with the characters, a great deal of ink has also been expended stuffing the play into a box marked "intellectual theater," in which it is compared to other recent science-themed productions such as Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. But where Stoppard and Frayn use drama to frame intellectual debate, Auburn does the opposite. There is almost no math in Proof, and when it does appear-as in a scene in which Hal tells Catherine that his math-inspired punk band has a song called "i," a term which represents an imaginary number, and during which they just stand on stage quietly for three minutes-the terminology is explained, as one reviewer put it, with "an inoffensive way of making audiences feel smart."

"It's really strange," says Auburn of the likening of Proof to other science-driven plays. "I've been surprised by the reaction. I think Copenhagen is a terrific play and I admired it a lot, but I don't think they have anything in common. Copenhagen is an investigation of a specific historical mystery. I think it's dramatic, and I found it convincing on a human level, but it's taking a specific set of historical circumstances and trying to weave a mystery around it. My play is a fiction-in some ways a very conventional back-porch drama that happens to be set in this campus setting.

"It seems that it's unusual enough to have characters in a play who are scientists, that people think this is some sort of rich intellectual statement, and they lump you with any other play that happens to have done this. Just because the characters happen to be more or less academic doesn't make it more or less intellectual than any other play."

Auburn, as it turns out, knows very little about math. "I know a bit from talking to mathematicians and reading the kinds of books you can buy in airports, and I've put some of it into the play. I took freshman calculus at the University of Chicago, but besides that, I am not a mathematician and couldn't do any real math myself." He recalls overhearing students engaging in "math talk" in the gym when he was an undergraduate, what he calls "locker room talk, University of Chicago style."

An English major, he was first exposed to writing with the U of C sketch-comedy troupe Off-Off Campus. "I was in the second year of the group. I started writing sketches for them and found out I really liked it. It's the best fun you can have." The transition from sketch comedy to full plays was a gradual one. "I kept writing and the sketches kept getting longer," he says. "If I hadn't been exposed to that great Chicago sketch-comedy tradition, I probably never would have started."

His newfound interest led him to become theater reviewer for the Chicago Maroon, a position he admits he took so he could get free tickets to Chicago's playhouses. Weekends were spent at the Steppenwolf and the Goodman, an immersion that solidified his interest in the stage. "The first writing I ever did was for the theater, and I always felt really at home doing that. Now I do some screenwriting, but the thing I enjoy the most and want to keep doing is theater."

After graduation, Auburn accepted a fellowship from Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment's Writers Film Project, which moved him to Los Angeles to write screenplays for a year. When the fellowship expired and nothing had come of his work, he decided that there was a certain nobility to being a poor writer in New York that didn't apply to Los Angeles. "I figured if I'm going to go broke trying to be a writer, I'd rather do it trying to be a playwright than a screenwriter."

He moved to New York and worked at various odd jobs-including as a temp, in publishing, and for a chemical company-until he gained admission to a residency program at Juilliard which helped him to polish his material. After mild success presenting his plays and monologues on small stages and in literary journals, Auburn had Skyscraper produced Off Broadway. Despite its short run, he recognized that it was a "learning experience" and continued writing the odd assignment for book publishers and a documentary film company. He eventually quit to join his future wife, Frances Rosenfeld, in London, where she was conducting research for her Ph.D. in history. It was there that he began writing Proof, reflecting on his Hyde Park days and drawing inspiration from the colorful characters he remembered from school.

The plot for Proof was a conjoining of two potential plots he had been mulling over. "I started with the idea of writing about two sisters who are fighting about something left behind after their father's death," he says. "And I had another idea about someone approaching the age when one of their parents began suffering from mental illness, and they're worried that the same thing is going to happen to them.

"I didn't know if those two ideas belonged in the same play or if they were different plays. But I happened to be reading about mathematicians at the time, and I discovered that the world of math is a fascinating subculture. I also found out that there have been famous mathematicians who have suffered from insanity, so that gave me the bridge between the two ideas-I could have the two sisters fighting over something like their dad's papers. He could have been a great mathematician, and one of the daughters could be in the position of worrying about how much of their father's talent and illness she had inherited. So once I had those two things it was easy to start writing the play."

One book Auburn was reading was G. H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology, a classic in the genre of math literature. "He was a Cambridge mathematician who wrote very eloquently about the pleasure, passion, and joy of doing the work," recalls Auburn. This emotional involvement of the mathematician with his work fed into the characters of Catherine and her father in Proof, giving the audience a sense of the fine line between madness and genius, showing that obsessive math is not done by geeks, but by passionate people who feel as much as they think.

In one particularly touching flashback, Catherine tries to convince her mentally deteriorating father to come in off the cold porch, but he won't until she reads aloud the equations he's been working on. Catherine's voice trembles as she reads from his notebook: Let x equal the quantity of all quantities of x. Let x equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold, and four of heat, leaving four months of indeterminate temperature. In February it snows. In March the lake is a lake of ice. In September the students come back and the bookstores are full.

Let x equal the month of full bookstores. The number of books approach infinity as the number of months of cold approaches four. I will never be as cold now as I will in the future. The future of cold is infinite. The future of heat is the future of cold. The bookstores are infinite and so are never full except in September.... Auburn finds passionate thinkers in the history books as well, in the story of Sophie Germain, a French woman who exchanged a series of scholarly letters with the German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss almost 200 years ago. Fearing that she would be ignored because she was a woman in a man's game, she adopted the pseudonym Antoine-August Le Blanc. After five years of letters, Gauss discovered her true identity and wrote to her:

A taste for the abstract sciences in general and above all the mysteries of numbers is excessively rare.... But when a person of the sex which, according to our customs and prejudices, must encounter infinitely more difficulties than men to familiarize herself with these thorny researches, succeeds nevertheless in surmounting these obstacles and penetrating the most obscure parts of them, then without a doubt she must have the noblest courage, quite extraordinary talents and superior genius.

Auburn uses Gauss's words to touching effect in Proof when he has Catherine recite it from memory to Hal, revealing her own frustration-and pride-at being a woman in what is still very much a man's game. Catherine's insecurity, her fear of developing her father's dementia, and her reluctance to suggest that she may have written the proof, hint that she is facing a fear more terrifying than madness or marginalization: a fear of greatness.

To capture the right balance of emotion and intellectualism in the math culture, Auburn went straight to the source. "I had mathematicians read the play, then come in and speak to the cast, so I really tried to bring that into the theater." But he did not let the details swallow the drama. "Mostly I just used what I needed to use to tell the story. I felt like I was writing a family drama, and the math was the glue that held the dramatic story together."

By the time he had finished Proof in fall of 1998, Auburn was back in New York and submitted it to the production company that had put on Skyscraper. It was picked up to play the following season at the Manhattan Theatre Club, one of the best-known venues for new American plays. During the year-long wait for the premiere, Auburn kept busy-he wrote another play, won a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and a Helen Merrill Playwriting Award, and married his fiancée, now in her last year of Ph.D. work at Columbia University.

When Proof opened for its three-month run last May, it was praised by the critics and sold out through the season, paving the way for a move to the big stage. "The director was available, and all the cast wanted to come with the show. It rarely works that way." But it did work, and opening weekend at the Walter Kerr put Auburn's name on the lips of the New York theater scene.

Only a week after the premiere, Auburn has moved on to other projects. Although Proof is new to Broadway, he already speaks of it in the past tense. "I've got another play nearly finished, now that the Proof stuff has died down," he says. "I can start working on that with actors and get the ball rolling. I'll do that for the next six months and see how it goes."

He is also adapting for the screen Scott Anderson's novel Triage. "It's an interesting assignment," he says. "I've never taken someone else's characters and adapted them." He doesn't know if he will ever adapt his own work for the screen. "We've talked about making a movie of Proof, but I really like it as a play. It's conceived specifically as a play, so if it were going to be a movie it would be very different."

Despite his strong Broadway debut, Auburn is reluctant to call it an indicator of continued success. Like Catherine, he is smart and passionate about his work, and maybe just a little afraid of his own talent. "It looks like this may make it easy for me in the immediate future. You always hope that someone will do your next play, so if the current play enables that to happen, then that makes you happy." -C.S.


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