On Sunday I arrived in Hyde Park straight from O'Hare airport for a matinee performance of "Proof," directed by Charles Newell and now extended through April 14.
Less than 24 hours before, I'd seen a hot young TV star in a Broadway show. I'm not generally given to attacking the stars-on-Broadway phenomenon; people like watching celebrities they've met in their living rooms, and on Broadway they're asked to shell out big bucks, stars in the cast or not. Plus, many Hollywood stars become stars for the simple reason they are darn good actors. I like watching stars, you might say. Celebrities mean high stakes, which is the lifeblood of the theater.
But in this particular instance, the youth and talent of the star notwithstanding, the inorganic nature of this particular New York production was inescapable. The casting was dubious, the vision of the creative team seemed to be flying in 10 directions, and it felt like the entire thing was a marriage of convenience.
One could almost hear the calculating conversations about how doing a play would be good for a young career that needed a touch of gravitas. One could just imagine all the "well, we need a name to sell tickets" compromises. One just imagine some dealmaker putting all this together — "all this" being Emilia Clarke (of HBO's "Game of Thrones") in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." At the Times Square subway station, her pouty face stared back at me from a poster.
All of that was ringing in my ears when Chaon Cross walked out on the Court Theatre stage in Hyde Park. Cross is every bit as glamorous, in that leading-lady way, as any Hollywood star. But she lives in Chicago, away from the hype and the big deals. Yet, as her work in "Proof" reveals, she is a darn fine and fearless actress.
When you see such a performance so soon after one that is getting so much more attention, you cannot help but want to shout its merits from the rooftops.
It is, I suppose, a requirement of the Chicago theater critic to claim the work is better and purer in Chicago, and sometimes that's just self-serving nonsense. But last weekend, I swear, it was so, so much better. And quieter and purer, which was partly why it was better.
The difference between these two shows — one of which was awful, one of which was among the very best productions I've seen all year — was the strength of the relationship between director and actor. Newell has had his flops (I found his "Angels in America" last season to be a grave disappointment, some fine performances notwithstanding), but there is no director in Chicago better at exposing the hidden guts of a play.
That same Sunday, I traveled from Hyde Park (sorry, family) straight downtown to see Robert Falls' "Measure for Measure." Falls' show is a blast, forged by a director with a taste for the audacious and a spectacular aesthetic mind. But it was a show that wants to show you a different, cheekier "Measure for Measure," a rush of new ideas on and about the play. Indeed, as some smart readers have written to observe this week, it was as if Falls really wanted to write his own play; actually, he kind of did, given that he had his own ending.
"Measure" is terrific, but it does not make you cry. "Proof" does.
That is partly because Cross and Newell are clearly joined at the hip on this one. There is something about the actress's physical exploration of David Auburn's grieving character (her mathematician father has just died) that feels like an encapsulation of the very idea for the show, which is to take a Broadway play, one you thought was conventionally structured, and refocus everything on the mind and heart of the central character.
Nobody else could have pulled this off, you find yourself thinking. This director's conception is at one with this actress. And thus this actress is willing to do whatever it takes, even though it won't somehow fill out a career or lead to a big movie or be greeted with cameras or posters or snag another element of the reward system in show business.
Except one. The satisfaction of the work.
Cross deserves any and all hype for this one, even a poster in Times Square. But in Hyde Park right now, the audience is the one getting all the rewards.
"Proof" runs through April 14 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.; $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, CT Now