New Review: 33 Variations

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For New York Press.

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Here’s the review:

The first moment in Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, which marks Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway after 46 years, occurs not on stage but in the audience. Musical director Diane Walsh enters, bows and sits graciously at a grand piano, house left. She begins playing the sweet and unremarkable waltz by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli that inspired Ludwig von Beethoven to write 33 variations on Diabelli’s theme, and apparently inspired Kaufman to compose his probing if problematic play. 33 Variations really asks a simple question: Given the banality of Diabelli’s waltz, why did Beethoven bother?

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The music lasts long enough for a shaft of light to appear. From the shadows emerges Fonda, who at 71 seems redoubtable yet vulnerable somehow as she walks to the edge of the stage. Looking at us directly, it takes only a few short sentences for Kaufman’s tale to begin, but by setting Fonda front and center, brave and unafraid, the celebrity aura that accompanied her entrance recedes. She’ll spend the rest of the evening constructing a marvelous character-a terminally ill musicologist intent upon unlocking the inner flecks of Beethoven’s mind, to articulate the ineffable impulse that leads to art. She’ll illuminate many dimensions of this brash, brilliant Dr. Katherine Brandt, making her inquisitive and winning, enigmatic and stubborn, curt and curious, frail and fragile. All in the service of a play that shines but rarely glows.

Up until now, Kaufman has been known mostly as a purveyor of documentary theater work like The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. He proved his versatility when he directed Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, about German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, to a 2004 Tony for Best Play. But here, the musicologist is entirely fictional; it’s the subject matter that is open to historical debate. Weirdly, by writing a traditional play, Kaufman is sometimes waylaid by traditional playwriting tricks.

For example: Clara (Samantha Mathis), Katherine’s daughter. Katherine hopes Clara will stop flitting from arts profession to arts profession; Clara wishes Katherine had told her earlier that she’s suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. However, they keep their tensions in check as a nurse, Mike (Colin Hanks), examines Katherine and awards her a bill of health clean enough to visit Bonn, where a great repository of Beethoven papers awaits her research. Not so coincidentally, Mike takes a liking to Clara; when they just happen to meet at a computer-repair store, their romance begins. To their credit, Mathis and Hanks (who does resemble his famous father Tom) have an unforced chemistry. In fact, Hanks makes an especially lasting impression as an earnest guy who happens to fall in love with a girl whose mother happens to be dying. Very smart of him to buy in fully to the scheme so that when elements of the play devolve even more into soap opera, he can stop the play from drowning in suds.

Meanwhile, there’s Beethoven (Zach Grenier), whose life during the period of writing the variations is whimsically conjured up by Kaufman and slipped into the play to parallel Katherine’s declining health and struggle to understand his inspiration. Diabelli (Don Amendolia), along with Beethoven’s harried factotum Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), also appear as Katherine is guided through the Bonn collection by dry, arch archivist Gertie (Susan Kellermann). The scenes with Grenier, Amendolia and Steele are played at a chew-the-scenery pitch and are simply a guilty pleasure. Kellermann, playing something of a sour kraut at the top of the play, softens her character beautifully as Katherine declines and bonds with Gertie.

As Katherine works through Beethoven’s papers, she becomes increasingly ill. As Beethoven works through his variations, also falling into illness, Walsh plays many of them, underscoring and punctuating the scenes. Derek McLane’s set-a towering array of portfolio-filled metal shelves-provides room for Jeff Sugg’s projections, often displaying the page, in Beethoven’s hand, on which those notes were written.

Eventually, Katherine and Clara make their peace, despite an overblown scene about Katherine’s plans for her death. And Beethoven, having resisted endless pleas from Diabelli to finally finish his variations so they may be published, lays down his quill. Now Kaufman allows his play it’s most salient moment-when Clara idly whistles Diabelli’s waltz. You can see the recognition of something unknowable in Fonda’s eyes. Asked what she likes about the waltz, Clara says, “It has a pretty melody. It has a nice rhythm.” So that’s why Beethoven bothered. Art needn’t always be a crucible, you see. It can be, of course, but art can also be because we like it. What an unusual gift that Fonda-and Kaufman-gives us.

Through May 24. Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St. (betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.), 212-239-6200; times vary, $67-117.