Broadway Review: March, 2009
33 Variations starring Jane Fonda at the O’Neill Theater includes a bit of a time warp in which we travel back to Germany and Austria of the early 19th century to observe Ludwig von Beethoven at work. The time travel began before we even entered the theater however, as we were treated to a group of six angry right wing nuts stuck in 1972 screaming that we (along with Hanoi Jane) were a bunch of commie pinkos. Theatrical as it was, sadly they were serious. Safely inside the O’Neill we were quickly brought back to date by the tasteful renovation of the O’Neill following the departure of the much loved Spring Awakening and the realization of what a well crafted old theater it remains.
Playwright Moises Kaufman (The Laramie Project) tells us that 33 Variations, while based on historical fact, i.e., the publication of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the story is not literal but rather a “series of variations on a moment in a life.” Just as musical variations are: the repetition of a musical theme with modifications in rhythm, tune harmony or key, Kaufman mirrors and varies that moment in time and space. Two characters connected across centuries by the magic in the music pursue its soul and inspiration. The connections also speak to variations on a common theme of the human spirit: the drive to accomplish, to make our mark on the course of history before we pass on. Beethoven (Zach Grenier) struggles to complete the Diabelli Variations, one of his final masterpiece works, which took a simple drinking song melody to new heights while losing his hearing and his health in general. Modern day musicologist Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) travels to Bonn despite the fact that she too is dying, in her case of the rapidly debilitating ALS, to continue her academic study of Beethoven’s work. There she examines sketches (notes) of his work in progress with the help of local scholar Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman) to deconstruct why he took on the Variations project and what inspired him to make so much of so little.
Both are driven by their work, to bring closure to it and in the end, to their lives, ignoring the protestations of those closest to them that in doing so they tempt fate. Both are surrounded by characters devoted to them – Beethoven’s faithful servant, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and Brandt’s daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis), who despite good intentions, are rebuffed in their attempts to intrude on their behalf. It is painful for Schindler to see his brilliant master chasing what is seemingly a creative dead end. At first it is Schindler who apparently convinces Beethoven that he must accept the offer from Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolla) so that he can eat and pay the rent. Diabelli is an up and coming music publisher who, despite his own lack of talent is also on a mission: to have the world’s most creative composers acknowledge him by writing variations to his very simple tune. But Beethoven quickly becomes consumed by the project and Schindler desperately tries to rescue him and get him to move on to projects more deserving of his talents.
Clara is appalled that her mom is resolute in her decision to follow through on plans to travel to Bonn after just learning of her terminal illness. With help from her boyfriend (Colin Hanks) Clara puts plans for her own life on hold however to accompany and assist her mother. We follow the transition in these supporting characters from naïve determination to eventual acceptance, fueled by their devotion. Shifting back and forth in time smoothly, the variations on the theme unfold and additional plot twists emerge…all to the ever present musical variations (lyrically played by pianist and musical director, Diane Walsh) and creative and fluid sets designed by Derek McLane.
Fonda is outstanding and while she’s been away from Broadway for 46 years (and just a little rusty – a couple of lines dropped were quickly recovered), she convincingly depicts both her character’s unwavering determination and pride in pursuit of her life’s work and the rapid deterioration in her health as she struggles against time. The remainder of the cast provided strong support.
Just as Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations builds on a simple theme and emerges layer by layer to a more complex and self reflective work, Kaufman’s 33 Variations unfolds provocatively piece by piece to reveal complexities in human nature that arise from simple needs.