Thursday, October 10, 2013

One-Hit Wonders

American theater is populated with one-hit wonders.

Whether it be Mary Chase (“Harvey”) and Joseph Kesselring (“Arsenic And Old Lace”) from decades past or more recent examples personified by Margaret Edson (“Wit”) and John Logan (“Red”), American theater has produced a proliferation of playwrights known for producing one, and only one, commercial and artistic success—and in all such cases the identities of the authors quickly dropped from view while the titles of their single successes lived on.

How many persons, for instance, can name the respective creators of “Teahouse Of The August Moon” and “The Great White Hope”?

I was put in mind of American one-hit wonders the weekend before last, when Joshua and I took Josh’s sister, visiting us that weekend, to local performances of two contemporary American plays.


David Auburn’s “Proof”, first produced in 2000, is a play I admire. “Proof” is the only Auburn play ever to have gained traction.

“Proof” presents the story of a young woman who had cared for her late father, a mentally-ill mathematician, in his final years. During his decline, the father had filled notebook after notebook with mathematical formulas that may or may not have been little more than gibberish.

A former student of the mathematician arrives to review the notebooks to ascertain whether they contain anything of worth—and he judges everything to be worthless except for one exceptionally brilliant formulation.

To the former student’s surprise, the brilliant formulation turns out to be the work of the mathematician’s caregiver daughter—or so she claims.

It is in establishing proof of authorship—“proof” regarding the mathematical “proof”—that much of the drama hinges.

Tension is added by a budding romance between the two, as well as the arrival of a second daughter, efficient and practical beyond compare, who swiftly moves to wrap up her late father’s estate and close a chapter of life she found unsettling.

“Proof” was, deservedly, a great hit on Broadway. It ran for over two years—917 performances, a remarkable total for a drama—and won countless awards. I saw “Proof” toward the end of its Broadway run, when the production was on its second or third cast (and not in tip-top shape), and I thought the play worthwhile. I found the play even more intriguing upon a second acquaintance ten days ago.

The production, at Bloomington Civic Theatre, was very fine. The caregiver daughter and mathematician father (who appears in flashback) were particularly fine, the former student and second daughter somewhat less so.

I find “Proof” moving. It becomes more and more obvious, as the play progresses, that the caregiver daughter has inherited her late father’s mental illness. It is a sad, painful play.


David Lindsay-Abaire writes kitchen-sink drama, a genre I thought had long ago died out. The playwright’s “Rabbit Hole” is his only play produced with frequency, although I cannot understand why: “Rabbit Hole” reminds me of scripts for Bette Davis/Ernest Borgnine movies from the 1950s.

The playwright’s more recent “Good People” opened in 2011 on Broadway, where—despite star casting—it ran only for 101 performances. “Good People”, nowhere else a success, has proven to be a triumph at Saint Paul’s Park Square Theatre, where we attended a performance at the urging of friends.

“Good People” is a story of working-class persons from South Boston, one of whom has managed to get out and establish a thriving career as a physician. To his discomfort, he is contacted by a former girlfriend on the make, who is down-on-her-luck and looking for assistance wherever she can find it.

A series of uncomfortable encounters—“confrontations” is too strong a word—ensues, during which the former girlfriend tells the physician that she gave birth to his child many years ago, and that the child is disabled.

Nothing gets resolved, although at the end of the play the former girlfriend is presented with a sum of money (the money does not come from the physician).

There is no genuine drama in “Good People”. The play resembles a hastily-written script for a low-budget television film. “Good People” is not a unified work of art—it is two or three soap-opera episodes strung together.

Park Square Theatre gave the undistinguished material an exceptional production. It is the production, and not the play, that is drawing theatergoers to Saint Paul.

Much of the Saint Paul “Good People” was played for laughs—and, suitably, we laughed along. Nonetheless, while enjoying the colorful performances, many of which indeed were superb (if not wicked), I kept asking myself:

Is there a play here?


Playwrights David Auburn and David Lindsay-Abaire, whose plays we saw less than 48 hours apart, were both born on November 30, 1969.

It is one of those odd coincidences that can never be explained.


  1. I have always liked "Proof." But my impressions stem from the 2005 movie adaptation. I have not had the convenient opportunity to see the stage play.

    I don't think there is another film that so accurately shows what university mathematicians actually DO for a living. A common variable - pun intended - among mathematicians in academia is some unquantifiable "air of detachment" from reality, a peculiarity that is very well conveyed by both Anthony Hopkin's Robert Llewellyen Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, Catherine.

    I don't know where this perceived "air of detachment" originates in the psyche, but I have seen if over and over again. It is, therefore, easy for someone to imagine how ANY mathematician just might be inchoate John Forbes Nash, Jr. redux..

    My only complaint about the film - and it's a serious one - is Jake Gyllenhaal's "Hal," who is otherwise quite satisfactory playing Marine grunts or cowboys. This actor, however, did not convince me for a second that he was a PhD in theoretical mathematics.

  2. I'll catch you on Tuesday. We're in NYC this weekend. Heard Gergiev lead Shostakovich 8 tonight. Not pleasing.

  3. You might also consider a hop to Cleveland in two weeks. Welser-Moest is doing both the Shostakovich 8th (Friday) and the 10th (Saturday).

  4. I have not seen the movie, “Proof”.

    They’ll have to play Shostakovich in Cleveland without us. There is no way we can go to Cleveland the weekend after next.

    I think the 2013-2014 Cleveland Orchestra season is very unimpressive. In fact, I think every American orchestra has poor programming this season. When you have a chance, go through them all and see for yourself how unimaginative is the programming nationwide.

    It is depressing.