nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 11, 2009
33 Variations is a compelling and entertaining show, and Jane Fonda—in her first Broadway appearance in 46 years—is terrific in it. It's a pleasure to have her on stage, in a role that suits and showcases her talents beautifully. Fans of the movie star—and theatre-goers in search of something a little bit off the beaten track, thematically—will likely be more than satisfied by this experience.
Fonda plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who is trying to solve a nearly 200-year-old mystery. Near the end of his career, Beethoven was asked (along with many other prominent contemporaries) to write a variation on a waltz by the minor composer/music publisher Anton Diabelli. Initially, he turns down the commission; and then suddenly he decides to write not one but six or seven variations...which, over the course of several years, turn into a full-blown composition comprising 33 variations. The question for Katherine is: why? What made Beethoven change his mind, and eventually devote years of his life to a project inspired by such a seemingly trivial tune?
Katherine's own life trajectory offers a parallel: while Beethoven's deafness became total during the time he worked on the variations, Katherine is in the later stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease), and her ability to complete the research that has become her obsession is hampered more and more as the illness progresses. Playwright Moises Kaufman doesn't offer a reason for Katherine's urgent need to examine this particular subject and make it a quixotic quest at the end of her own life; nor, for that matter, does he really provide a clear conclusion to the Beethoven question (indeed, how can he?).
What he does do in 33 Variations is look at the ineffable nature of art. Where does it come from? How does a Beethoven "hear" so many different and glorious arrangements of the same four notes, finding such diverse moods and emotions within them? And how does a Katherine Brandt sift through so-called evidence (sketches, historical accounts, letters, and so forth) to impose meaning on this music?
As someone who is in awe of the ability to create something extraordinary (music, for example, or a play) out of seemingly nothing but that indefinable thing called inspiration, and as someone who spends his days and nights observing, sorting through, and reporting on said extraordinary creations, I found 33 Variations very resonant indeed. It made me want to hear more Beethoven, and learn more about him. And it made me hungry for other examples of that singular exquisite moment of concentration when something entirely new emerges fully formed from a person's consciousness—a moment captured with spectacular felicity in the second act of this play, in a scene where we watch Beethoven (portrayed here by actor Zach Grenier) compose one of the variations while we hear it played on the piano (beautifully) by Diane Walsh.
Walsh's presence here, by the way, is one of Kaufman's great inspirations in 33 Variations. Throughout the show, she provides a living and oh-so-appropriate soundtrack to the story. And casting Fonda as Katherine is a brilliant choice on Kaufman's part (he is also the director of the play), for she brings all of the fortitude we associate with her, along with a hint of glamour, to this role of a strong-willed woman determined to get what she wants before she can no longer function.
She also helps to soften the key human relationships in the play (apart from Katherine's psychic bond with Beethoven). At the archive in Germany where Katherine is doing her research, she must work with Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger. Susan Kellermann imbues Gertrude with great intelligence and humanity, and the two actresses mesh splendidly as their characters grow as collaborators and, tentatively and warily, as colleagues and friends. At home, there is Katherine's daughter, Clara; theirs is a love/hate relationship that Kaufman leaves vague, relying on cliche to sketch it out. Samantha Mathis works hard to make Clara three-dimensional and sympathetic as she learns how to love her mother before it's too late. Colin Hanks is enormously likable and affable as Mike, a nurse who becomes Clara's boyfriend and helps bring about the ultimate reconciliation between mother and daughter.
The play is weakest when dwelling on Katherine's familial side; it shines, though, as it sketches out (using flashbacks involving Beethoven, Diabelli, and Beethoven's assistant Anton Schindler, as well as scenes between Katherine and Gertrude in the archive) the quest to know something that can't be known. The music, the set by Derek McLane, the lighting by David Lander, and the projections by Jeff Sugg all combine to serve Kaufman's theme mightily at these moments. There are times when the play feels as exciting as a good detective story. And, on a few occasions, 33 Variations approaches catharsis as a layer or two of an ineffable secret gets stripped away.