Playwright David Auburn, an hour after learning his Broadway play, Proof, won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, admitted his was "really surprised" and feeling "a little freaked out."
The 31-year-old Juilliard playwriting graduate asked that "freaked out" not be printed, but who can resist such frankness? Nowhere on record have past Pulitzer winners Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, August Wilson or Horton Foote said they were "freaked out."
The past two years have been a series of surprises for the unaffected, humble, married young writer described by friends and colleagues as a nice, regular guy with no attitude.
"I was surprised when the play got picked up for production [by Manhattan Theatre Club], I was surprised when it [moved] to Broadway," Auburn told Playbill On-Line.
The drama now at the Walter Kerr Theatre is one of the major hits of the 2000-2001 Broadway season. Director Daniel Sullivan's staging starring Mary-Louise Parker has made its investment back and is a sure thing for a Best Play Tony Award nomination. The work concerns the anguished daughter of a University of Chicago math genius and the discovery of rare math proof among his papers in the home they share. One of the major ideas in the play is the notion of "legacy" — how the gifts and the burdens of genius are passed on. Did Auburn think in terms of "theme" when writing Proof?
"I really just thought in terms of plot the first time through, trying to get the story to make sense and be clear," Auburn said, adding that thematic ideas get richer when you go through it again, and when actors are added to the mix.
Auburn said people are embracing the play because "everyone has parents" and "everyone aspires to be like them in some ways, and have concerns about other traits they may [inherit]."
The "fear and hope" audiences have about their parents and the legacy they pass on fuels the play, Auburn agreed. The math professor, Robert, played by Larry Bryggman, is slowly deteriorating in the play, and Mary-Louise Parker's character, the daughter, Catherine, has fears about how he is crumbling. Will she crumble, too?
The now-famous Act One curtain line of the play, at which audiences consistently gasp, was there from the first draft, Auburn said. He knew the discovery of the proof would be the event that ended the first act. And that line? At the time, Auburn said, "This is shameless, but I can fix it later." It stayed.
Does he mind that the play comes off as a ripping good mystery?
"I really wanted to write something that would be involving on a narrative level," he said. "That people want to know what happens next is great. The pace of it and the energy is [the work of] the cast and Dan Sullivan. The script didn't really change [in rehearsal]. The decision to have a very concrete detailed [setting], is Dan and [designer] John Lee Beatty. In the script it just says 'a porch.'"
Auburn's earlier work, such as Skyscraper, seen Off Broadway, was younger and more "conceptual," he said. Others have called it "zany" and "satirical," which Proof is not.
"I was three years older when I wrote Proof," he said. "I wanted to write a more naturalistic play."
He's thrilled that there are audiences for new American plays, and said MTC has been a champion of new voices. "They've been extremely aggressive to find new American plays," he said.
Auburn, who grew up in Ohio and Arkansas, is working on two new "realistic" plays: one set in Ohio during the Great Depression and another focusing on an historical subject he would rather not discuss. He has also adapted a novel, "Triage," into a screenplay for Sydney Pollack, and insists he "would love to keep writing plays."
— By Kenneth Jones