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PROOF at Shea’s 710 Main proves critics right

THE BASICS:  PROOF, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama by David Auburn, presented by Buffalo Laboratory Theatre, directed by Katie White, with only six performances, is up only through April 2, with a final performance Sunday at 2:00 p.m. at Shea’s 710 Theatre (the old Studio Arena Theatre) at 710 Main Street at Tupper. Runtime: about 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. Full service bar with beautiful lounge, snacks, coat-check (1-800-745-3000). www.sheas.org/710main

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The play opens with Catherine and her mathematical genius father, Robert, on her 25th birthday, a touching scene until we find that dad just died after five years of mental decline. Are we to think that daughter, too, is going ‘round the bend? Things get complicated as graduate student Hal appears, but is he there to preserve the legacy of his former professor or to find some publishable material to enhance his own career? Things get really complicated when older sister Claire arrives from New York, but when she says that she is there to help Catherine, are we talking “professional” help?

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:

Full disclosure: Marissa Biondolillo who plays “Catherine” and I are co-workers. Also, people ask “Do you read other reviews before you write your own?” and the answer is usually “no” but due to other commitments, I didn’t get over to see PROOF until the penultimate show, so yes, I did read the other reviews before I went. They were very positive and most of the rough edges that were reported on opening night seemed to have been sanded smooth. I won’t cover old ground here, but I do want to make some general observations.

Renting the use of Shea’s 710 Theatre and then mounting a show on that big stage can be a challenge for a set designer on a budget. Two fairly-recent presenters who filled the big thrust stage effectively were two that I have often praised for set designs on their own turf – MusicalFare and The Shaw Festival. When MusicalFare put on RED, by using huge flats representing painter Mark Rothko’s large canvases, they filled the stage and it felt “right” as if I were in the old Studio Arena Theatre. MRS. WARREN’S PROFESSION felt just like the very well-heeled presentations up in Niagara on the Lake. On the other hand, set-wise, CHRISTMAS IS COMIN’ UPTOWN was a disappointment. For PROOF, Buffalo Laboratory Theatre’s set designer Jeff A. Ramirez took a different tack using an unadorned, soft lit drop to cover about half of the stage. Then he put his energy and limited budget into a very realistic back porch representing a house that, like its inhabitants, could have used a lot of TLC over that past five years. I come neither to bury set designers nor to praise them, but simply to point out the enormous elephant in the room that is 710. This is a beautiful theater with a very well appointed front of the house, 650 comfortable seats, thank you to everyone involved in rescuing this building, and it should be rented out every weekend it’s such a classy jewel. But, damn, that stage is big, and it’s thrust, so that you have to fill it with something. A lot of something.

Or someone. A lot of someone. The recent exception to everything above was A.R. Gurney’s LOVE LETTERS which had stars Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal sitting at a small table on an unadorned stage reading from notebooks. About as bare bones as you can get. But nobody noticed.

What kept the audience focused on LOVE LETTERS was the interaction between the characters on stage. And that’s what works with PROOF. It’s a very, very good play and the actors were well cast, almost to the point of being type cast. Marissa Biondolillo as the hurt, confused, tentative, but ultimately no-pushover Catherine here seemed to reprise her role as the hurt, confused, and tentative but ultimately no push-over girlfriend “Bec” in this season’s 4000 MILES (part of the Amy Herzog year at Jewish Rep). Dave Hayes as Robert, the argumentative, intelligent, mathematician who likes to talk about food reprised the character of “Gabe” the argumentative, intelligent food writer from DINNER WITH FRIENDS at Road Less Traveled. And Sean Marciniak played the university nerd in love with a great man’s daughter who wants something of the old man’s that will further his career, but doesn’t want to come right out and ask for it. That was “Adam” in Raices Theatre’s MARIELA IN THE DESERT.

And, whether or not “type cast,” everyone worked very hard to develop believable characters, as reported earlier.

So, it worked.

Another small detail. I am always very appreciative of what we hear when we enter the theater, the soundscapes created, the incidental music, and music used for interludes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see a credit for that in the program, but the songs played when the house lights were up and the haunting piano music heard when the stage was black were inspired. I would like it if sound designers could put their playlists on a website. Perhaps there are royalty issues, so this might not be a good idea. I do know that NPR (which pays a huge annual fee to BMI and ASCAP) can provide you with a list of everything they play, even a five second musical blip between news segments, because people want to know.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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