Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 9, 2009
33 Variations Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Music by Ludwig van Beethoven. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Janice Pytel. Lighting design by David Lander. Sound design by André J. Pluess. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Hair & wig design by Charles LaPointe. Choreographer Daniel Pelzig. Additional costumes by David C. Woolard. Cast: Jane Fonda, also starring Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Zach Grenier, Don Amendolia, Susan Kellerman, Erik Steele, Diane Walsh, Scott Barrow, Emily Donahoe, Caitlin O’Connell, Michael Winther.
There is, however, a fair amount of the ordinary to overcome. Kaufman, who also directs, takes so many cues directly from Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” in structuring his play that you may feel you’re watching a graduate student’s joint master’s thesis project for both classical music and playwriting. As Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli set forth a pleasant but unexceptional waltz as a theme on which Beethoven expounded nearly three dozen miniature masterpieces of dizzyingly varying styles, so too does Kaufman revisit a single collection of struggles in many different and divergent ways.
The pacing of this scene is that of a march: direct and pounding. That one’s a fugue, with spoken and silent desires heard both separately and overlapping. Later, a minuet recasts a dark moment as a light-footed triumph. This passage is allegro and the next largo, the tempi at first sounding incongruous, but soon outlining the highs and lows of a complicated life. Every possibility is explored, advanced, and then discarded so the next can begin.
It’s all an intellectually sound way to treat the story of a musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, who’s slowly wasting away from Lou Gehrig’s Disease and hopes to unlock the mystery of Beethoven’s Diabelli fascination before her own final movement. It’s also, more often than not, emotionally inert if examined in pieces. Kaufman’s dissections of individual moments are unfailingly studied, frequently obvious, and almost always dustily distant. Derek McLane’s music-library set, all flapping pages of sheet music and vertically stacked storage boxes that David Lander has spookily lit, is a highly appropriate visual metaphor for Katherine, her daughter Clara and her nurse boyfriend Mike, the music expert she meets on her final fact-finding trip to Bonn, and even Beethoven and Diabelli straining to discern faint sounds of fact emanating from a spectral piano several doors down.
But just as none of the “Diabelli Variations” may be properly appreciated on its own, so too do you need each scene for this play to fully resonate. Concepts that threaten silliness in isolation - the contrasting of Beethoven’s quest to complete his variations with Katherine’s to understand them, the battle between Katherine’s controlling belief that existence must be precisely ordered and her daughter’s that its form must follow its function - affect in spite of their familiarity. Kaufman never loses sight of the kernels of dramatic truth even as he riffs on them variously as mystery story, melodrama, or outright comedy; that’s why the play ultimately works so well, if so coldly.
If Kaufman’s work, which he admits in the Playbill offers a “fictional perspective” on the “Variations,” is unlikely to be paired with Beethoven’s in history books, and if lacks the personal warmth and theatrical spice necessary for any true classic, it’s a compellingly original and thoroughly watchable play for today that deserves to remembered for more than merely being the vehicle for Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway after a 43-year absence.
The Oscar-winning film actress hasn’t been seen on the Main Stem since Strange Interlude in 1963, but her stage chops have apparently not diminished at all. She cuts a commanding figure, remains firm of voice, and has no trouble projecting shades of motive and meaning well to the back of the house. She’s hampered only by the role of Katherine, which grants her few of the expansive acting opportunities you might think she (or any name of her caliber) would insist upon.
Katherine so internalizes everything - her love for her daughter, her devotion to her work, even the pain her disease inflicts on her - that there’s little left for her to show the outside world, including us. Because the role is written to not come together until the play’s very last moments, you’re often left hanging on lingering melodies, as if someone shut off the CD player in mid-song. The performance must be constructed from fragments rather than lengthy phrases, which makes the actress’s task an unglamorous and difficult-to-appreciate one.
So if all the peripheral roles are orders of magnitude smaller, nearly every one ends up being far more dynamic. Beethoven is the true tour-de-force part: going mad over the variations, going deaf, and then going cosmic to straddle the centuries between him and Katherine to tie together their conflicting stories. Zach Grenier attacks that challenge with roof-raising bravado, and never disappoints or fails to convince as a chronically misunderstood genius. Erik Steele, as his business-minded envoy, and Don Amendolia, as the buffoonish but devoted Diabelli, round out the 19th century with their juicy portrayals.
Samantha Mathis and Colin Hanks are unfailingly modern as Clara and Mike, and are wonderful at executing the play’s most vividly staccato sections as they represent everything that Katherine has fought for and against. Susan Kellerman is a bit by-the-numbers as the stolid German doctor Katherine befriends, but brings a thunderous dignity to a difficult role that does little but reflect another point of view of the way that music and life can intersect.
Keeping with the collegiate atmosphere, Kaufman has even engaged a pianist (Diane Walsh) to remain positioned at house left throughout and provide her own virtuosic interpretations of the Diabelli and Beethoven tunes on which the action so critically depends. Yes, every choice is schematic best and serves some uncomfortable predictable purpose. But it's to the credit of everyone involved with 33 Variations that they can create an absorbing symphony from combinations of notes you've heard countless times before.