Sunday, January 19, 2003

Local theater's latest power plays

'Proof' at Playhouse, 'Copenhagen' at ETC are prizewinners and audience delighters

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Dale Hodges (left) Joneal Johnson and Greg Thornton rehearse a scene from Copenhagen
(Playhouse in the Park photo)
| ZOOM |
One play is about family and trust that tickles us with a mystery couched in mathematical theory.

The other is about friendship and memory. It's also a mystery, set in the world of nuclear physics.

Tony Award-winning Best Plays Copenhagen (2000) and Proof (2001) will be intriguing Cincinnati audiences for the next several weeks in their regional premieres.

Pulitzer Prize winning Proof is about Catherine, just turned 25, coming to terms with her father's death and grappling with the fear that she may have inherited his mental instability. She has, perhaps, also inherited his genius. Playwright David Auburn interjects big laughs throughout his play of Big Issues. It continues at Playhouse in the Park through Feb. 14.

Copenhagen, opening Wednesday at Ensemble Theatre and continuing through Feb. 9, goes back in time to explore the 1943 meeting between German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg who traveled to Denmark to meet with his old mentor Niels Bohr. The content of their conversation was never recorded or reported.

Heisenberg was in charge of the German atomic research program; Bohr believed nuclear fission had no practical military application but was in the network of physicists working in Allied countries.

Why Heisenberg sought the wartime meeting with his now-enemy has enjoyed more than half a century of leisure-time scrutiny by armchair investigators with a scientific bent.

Books sparked the ideas

Not surprisingly, both acclaimed Broadway hits started at bookstores.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 14
Where: Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, Eden Park
Tickets: $31-$43. 421-3888.
There's more: A free, pre-show lecture featuring Dan Nelson and Charles Groetsch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 26.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday Jan. 22-Feb. 9
Where: Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati, 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine
Tickets: $28, students and seniors $25. 421-3555.
Mr. Auburn never studied math and claims to have "barely made it through freshman calc."

The kid who had worked in community theater (mostly in Columbus, where he grew up) as a stagehand and light board operator took up writing in college, back in Chicago where he was born.

His first forays were writing sketch comedy for the university improv troupe. That led to one-acts, which led to a full-length play, which earned him a fellowship from Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. A year later he was a guy with an unsold screenplay for a romantic comedy in Los Angeles.

"I decided I'd rather be a starving playwright in New York than a starving screenwriter in L.A."

He spent two years in Julliard's playwriting program and learned a lot, but working day jobs wasn't helping his writing. He decided he would give himself three months just to write.

Happily, this decision coincided with his then-girlfriend (now-wife) Frances Rosenfeld going to London to do her doctoral work. Mr. Auburn went along.

`Proof written in a month'

It was in summer 1998 that Mr. Auburn went browsing through a bookstore and discovered a copy of G.H. Hardy's A Mathematician's Apology.

"I've always read a lot of popular math and science books for laymen," he explains. "I'm interested in a lot of stuff; it keeps the pump primed."

One paragraph in particular caught his attention: "In a good proof," Hardy wrote, "there is a very high degree of unexpectedness combined with inevitability and economy. The argument takes so odd and surprising a form; the weapons used seem so childishly simple when compared with the far-reaching consequences; but there is no escape from the consequences."

It may not have quite been one of the "Eureka!" moments, but it did pull together two separate ideas that had been intriguing Mr. Auburn.

The first was about a pair of sisters who find something valuable in their late father's papers; the other was a visual image of a young woman sitting alone and being asked by someone, "Why can't you sleep?"

Mr. Auburn wrote Proof in a month and finished a final draft six months later.

Set in Mr. Auburn's native Chicago, Catherine's story is also set in the world of academia, which Mr. Auburn knows well. His mother holds a doctorate, his wife and father are both professors. His paternal grandfather was once president ofUniversity of Cincinnati.

The human mystery

The book that inspired British playwright Michael Frayn, who is not doing interviews, was Heisenberg's War. It wasn't the science he found most fascinating, it was the human mystery.

His fundamental thesis is that no matter how well we know someone, we can never know why someone does what he does. And, in fact, we probably aren't completely accurate (or honest) about what drives any one of us to do what we do.

Copenhagen is written as a memory play, its three protagonists - Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe - long dead as they piece together their common history, as each of them individually recall it. Not fact, but not nuclear fission, either.

Stern common to both plays

The common denominator in Cincinnati is Ed Stern, who, as producing artistic director of Playhouse in the Park, chose Proof for the 2003-03 season. He directs Copenhagen at ETC and brings a cast familiar to Playhouse audiences - Joneal Joplin, Dale Hodges and Greg Thornton - to the ETC stage.

Mr. Stern has his own literary reference when he discusses both plays, the essay "The Two Cultures" by C.P. Snow, printed in The New Statesman and Nation in 1956.

"He was despairing that arts and humanities and the sciences were increasingly falling away (from each other) and recommended a `third culture,' one in which arts and science could be combined.

"In the last few years, numerous plays have addressed both." Those plays include Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, produced last season by Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival and Playhouse's upcoming Rosenthal New Play Prize winner The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Mr. Stern advises that audiences "don't try to work the mathematical proof out in your head, don't worry about the uncertainty principle in Copenhagen.

"Don't get stuck on the science and math."

He is echoed by Mr. Auburn, who says he never worried about explaining the mathematical proof that drives the play.

"It's the family's drama that matters. If the audience comes along for the ride, it's because the storytelling is right."

"Ultimately all these plays are about human issues," says Mr. Stern, "including Oppenheimer. Science is the background. Proof is about a father and daughter, Copenhagen is about, really, a father and son. Copenhagen is about the most impenetrable thing in the world - not the atom, but human motivation."

`Proof' due as a movie

Proof will be coming to the big screen. It's set to be filmed this year with Brad Anderson (Next Stop Wonderland) directing. Mr. Auburn is finishing a screenplay, The Forger, "about art forgery in World War II," for Miramax and there are "a pile of movie offers."

With a Pulitzer on his resume, that old romantic comedy that nobody would touch pre-Proof has been optioned and is "in development."

Nevertheless, Mr. Auburn says, "I'd like to keep my focus on playwriting."

Mr. Auburn avoided the neurosis of trying to follow a mega-hit because he wrote his next play before Proof became a mega-hit. He remains mum about title and subject, keeping them as much a mystery as the meanings at the heart of Proof.


Local theater's latest power plays
In 'Confessions,' Clooney 'stole' the best scenes
Reality succeeds with drama
Reality 2003: The lineup grows
CSO adopts diversity, inclusion policy
Memorial to honor Richard Fields
Sorg Opera has clear vision for the future
Paltrow nominated for Olivier award for role in 'Proof'
Actor in original 'Sounder' directs remake for ABC

Bookstore owner keeps the city's history alive
KENDRICK: Alive and well
Mirror collection reflects years of world travels
After 800 miles, walker will put her feet up
Dayton native has fun working with Clooney
Get to it!

Take these out to ballpark
Tousey House pairings all in good taste
Serve it this week: Lentils