We Had a Drink with Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright David Auburn

The playwright returned to a college haunt to talk about at an acclaimed play he wrote over a decade ago.

David Auburn

Photograph: Elly Fishman

David Auburn, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Proof, may have left Chicago a long time ago, but the barstools at Jimmy’s (a.k.a Woodlawn Tap) in Hyde Park still feel like home. My fellow UChicago grad (Auburn graduated nearly 20 years before me) spent an inordinate amount of time at the beloved watering hole during college.

Auburn, beer already in hand and burger in front of him when I sit down, had just come from the Court Theater, where artistic director Charlie Newell was conducting rehearsal for his staging of Proof. It’s been several years since Auburn sat in on a rehearsal of his Broadway blockbuster. “After the first few years, I felt like I’d had enough of Proof,” says Auburn, setting down his pint. “Only in the last year or two did I feel like I was ready to pay attention again.”

The play, which first opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2000, has been produced hundreds of times across the globe. (A revival production just opened in London last week.) But Newell’s version is like a special homecoming for Auburn—Proof is set in Hyde Park and tells story of Catherine, the grieving daughter of the late, brilliant University of Chicago mathematician Robert; both of whom would likely spend countless hours in Jimmy’s dank, dark rooms.

“The bar looks exactly the same as it did twenty years ago,” reflects Auburn. “But you used to leave and reek of cigarette smoke. You’d have this vetted Jimmy’s smell coming off your clothes.” Jimmy’s is one of those beloved Chicago dive bars that prides itself on stalwart sameness. Auburn’s eyes drift to the end of the bar landing on an older, disheveled man. “That guy was a bartender here when I was in college.”

Returning to Proof, he says, is “like looking at an old picture of myself.” From the talk of Ellis Avenue to charming, awkward, yet surprisingly aggressive, math geeks, Proof is laden with nostalgia for anyone who’s spent time at UChicago. “It’s really filled with this melancholy intellectual excitement that I felt while in school here.”

Hyde Park is such an important character in the story that they filmed the movie version here in 2005. (Auburn, though, isn’t the biggest fan of the film, saying, “I’m glad it exists, but the material really lives best on stage.”) 

Auburn now works as both a playwright and director in Manhattan (his most recent play, The Columnist, opened last Spring, with John Lithgow playing Joseph Alsop). But he says that Chicago will always feel like home. “I still feel like Chicago is my home. I grew up here. I met my wife here. I discovered that I wanted to be a writer here.”

And now, he also discovered he has family here—Auburn and I figured out that we’re third cousins related through a distant aunt named Betty. Cheers to that.

Proof plays through 4/7 at the Court Theatre. Tickets are on sale for $15 to $65.

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