33 Variations

  • Date:
    March 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall.

    This is what everyone is going to say at intermission of 33 Variations, and in this order. �She looks fabulous.� �How old is she?� �Oh my God � the set!�

    This is what they will say after the final curtain. �What an ending!� �Loved Beethoven. Who is he?� �She does look great.�

    And, of course, Jane Fonda does look great. More than that, she knows what she is doing, is enjoying herself, and is passing the gift on to us. This is some kind of feat because Fonda is tackling the nearly thankless roll of Dr. Katherine Brandt. Much like Vivian Bearing in Wit, Brandt is a woman on a scholarly mission. As a musicologist she has been smitten with Beethoven, specifically with his 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli. What makes the role thankless is that the characters of Brandt and Beethoven are kept from one another until her life and his series of variations are complete within the narrative. And there�s not a lot you can do when the writing keeps you away from your passion.

    In 1819 Anton Diabelli, successful publicist and a mediocre composer, wrote a waltz and invited the great male composers of the day to submit a variation which would be collected into one volume for publication. In music speak a variation is a version of a musical theme that modifies the melody, rhythm or harmony and creates a new form that is still recognizable as having come from the original. Everyone who was asked to contribute a Variation thought this was a swell idea. Except Beethoven, who thought the original waltz was garbage. Then came a change of heart, and Beethoven wrote not only one variation, he wrote, you guessed it, 33. Katherine Brandt wants to know why? Beethoven is near the end of his life � why would he take on such an enormous project of little merit when he was focusing on larger pieces like Missa Solemnis?

    This quest of Katherines is complicated by a little snag called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), "Lou Gehrig's Disease." ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. It eventually leads to paralysis and death. So, like Beethoven, Brandt is up against a time deadline � Get it? She also has a daughter with whom she must connect before she dies � Get it? And her daughter is in a relationship with a fantastic guy and wants the courage to commit to him � Get it? Everyone is in a time crunch, Beethoven, Brandt and Brandt � and us of course. Get it?

    The play would have been enough without the introduction of ALS. Because of her disease, Katherine can�t interact with Beethoven � one of those little tricks you can do in a play - because she is too busy being earnest and dying. She spends 97% of her time reacting to her discoveries and her debilitation. This is what I mean by a thankless role. While her daughter and boyfriend are thrashing it out in some hilarious scenes in romance land (Samantha Mathis and Colin Hanks are terrific) and while Beethoven (Zach Grenier) is arguing with his aide de camp, Schindler (Erick Steele) and Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) in equally engaging scenes, Fonda is left to dissolve in front of our eyes.

    Thankfully, she has a few monologues in which she not only blossoms, but takes us into her world. As a musicologist, a mother, and a mortal she uses every square inch of her monologues to impart wisdom to each of us � and she makes it a point to look at the entire audience. It is in these moments that Fonda shines and we are gifted with Brandt�s passion for music. She marvels at a city that has a statue of a composer, not a general, in its main square. Was Beethoven writing variations or transfigurations? Finally, she concludes, Beethoven was leading us into the microcosm of life through his 33 variations. None of these ideas are particularly earth shattering, but Fonda makes them so.

    The mechanics of the production are stunning. Derek Mclane�s walls of floating composition pages pass on and offstage as if they were a chorus in a ballet and serve both as walls and screens for the extraordinary projections by Jeff Sugg that take us back and forth between us in to 19th century Europe and the present. Diane Walsh�s work on the piano is so integral to the play that you are surprised to see her onstage at the curtain call without the piano at her side. Even the lesser noticeable elements like makeup, wigs and sound were beautifully executed. The one curious exception was the hair and costume for Ms. Mathis who is a lovely looking person but was made to look and dress in a way that made you think she did not own a full-length mirror. Odd.

    The last fifteen or so minutes of this play make the whole story come together. Beethoven and Brandt finally meet, and the playing field becomes theirs to share. In those moments 33 Variations is the sum that is much greater than its parts, complete with an extraordinary acappella �Kyrie Eleison� that is so well balanced you can hear each voice, including Fonda�s. There is a magic and majesty that sweeps out and pulls you to your feet. You leave the theatre altered in the positive.

    The cast and crew never falter, and in the end it is they who pull this evening together because, like Beethoven, they see through the form into the life it represents. It is the company more than the author who understands Beethoven:

    �Let us begin with the primary cause of things. Let us begin with how something came about. Why it came about in that particular way And became what it is.�

    Tulis McCall



    Wow, she is gorgeous. No jowls, no turkey wattle, no deeply etched lines on her face. True, there's cosmetic surgery, and makeup, but the fact is, Jane Fonda has, indeed, aged beautifully, and it's wonderful seeing this superstar back on Broadway after 46 years away, appearing in Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations."

    Fonda, who's led a complex life, does a superb job of creating the complex character of musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, serving well the intentions of Kaufman. Her Brandt is an elegant, articulate woman obsessed with completing a monograph about Beethoven's 33 variations on a waltz composed by publisher, Anton Diabelli, before she succumbs to a dreaded disease -- which isn't revealed till halfway through the first act. But more of that later.

    The immediate question is, what possesses artists of any medium to pursue an idea till it takes over their lives? How did Jackson Pollack know which splash of paint on the canvas should be the last? What did Beethoven hear that led him to conclude that there were exactly 33 variations on Diabelli's theme? And finally, how does an artist know when to let go?

    These are the questions Kaufman, who won a Tony for "I Am My Own Wife," asks in his fictional study of Beethoven's insatiable need to explore every possibility he hears in Diabelli's "inconsequential trifle" which the great composer himself called a "beer-hall waltz." In fact, why did Beethoven even bother with such an unworthy piece of music, taking only a brief respite from this project to compose his "Missa Solemnis?" The vehicle Kaufman uses for this exploration is the character of Dr. Brandt.

    Dr. Brandt, in questioning Beethoven's obsession, becomes as obsessed herself with these questions. Her research takes her to the source in Bonn, Germany where Beethoven�s original sketch books and compositions are archived. There she meets the Teutonic Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, curator of the collection, who eventually becomes Brandt's friend and confidant, something the emotionally guarded Brandt needs as her illness progresses. But about that later.

    As Dr. Brandt studies Beethoven's personal diaries, maintained and organized by Anton Schindler, his amanuensis, conversations between the two men are simultaneously conducted against a background of the music itself. In a fascinating directorial decision, Kaufman makes the music another character in this drama, as pianist Diane Walsh sits at a grand piano in full view of the audience, playing Beethoven's variations at the moment he thinks them.

    Now for the dreaded disease, the one hokey element of this otherwise outstanding play. Both Brandt and Beethoven must race against the ravages of degenerative conditions to complete their life�s work, and while Beethoven's deafness is common knowledge, we have to play Guess the Disease with Brandt till it's finally revealed she has ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). But the play is not about illness, it's about a woman and a composer on a mission who both need love but are too busy to accept it.

    Beethoven doesn't see the devotion of Schindler, any more than Brandt sees the love of Dr. Landenburger or her daughter, Clara, a constant disappointment to her mother. The young woman's "mediocrity" is as unfathomable to Brandt as is her relationship with the male nurse who cared for Brandt in the hospital.

    Colin Hanks (Tom's son), makes his Broadway debut as nurse Mike Clark with an affable easygoing manner that balances some of the hysteria around him. Samantha Mathis, as Clara, creates a constant pull of tension and love between her and her mother, as both come to terms with accepting one another.

    But the fire-breathing Zach Grenier, who last appeared as Cromwell in "A Man for All Seasons," burns the scenery, giving Beethoven a fully formed personality, so vivid and detailed that one might be moved to read a biography of this great musician. Beethoven had much to say on music that often transcended the subject itself. And his answer to why he bothered with such a trifling piece of music in the first place: he wanted to "transform it into its better self."

    What an idea. What a play.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus



    "Ms. Fonda�s layered crispness is, I regret to add, a contrast to Mr. Kaufman�s often soggy play, .... Still, I�m willing to forgive a fair amount in a production that returns Ms. Fonda with such gallantry to the Broadway stage"
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "Too bad this handsomely designed but unconvincing drama isn't as big an event as Fonda's return."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "Fonda's seemingly congenital inability to suggest weakness undermines both her character and the play's dynamics.
    Elisabeth Vincentelli
    New York Post

    "Ending in a laughable pseudo-epiphany, �33 Variations� is really a charade in three parts: one part �Amadeus,� one part Cliffs Notes, and one part �Lifetime Movie of the Week."
    John Simon

    "performances, along with some glorious music, make 33 Variations engaging in spite of its contrivances. "
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "Strained, pseudo-serious, intellectually scattershot project." Linda Winner

    "Kaufman has turned a potentially engrossing drama into a banal soap opera."
    David Sheward
    Back Stage

    "Unfortunately, Fonda, who looks fantastic, seems somewhat ill at ease in her first appearance on Broadway in 46 years" & "The story is significantly compromised by the often cutesy, jokey style in which Kaufman tells it."
    Robert Feldberg
    The Record

    "For all its lofty ambitions, it doesn't rise to the level of great theater. Still, it's an engaging work centering on a classical music mystery; and Jane Fonda's performance is a high note."
    Roma Torre

    "the play often seems dramatically tepid and slow moving. And this despite the efforts of a hardworking cast that includes Jane Fonda."
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "If Moises Kaufman's elegant production outshines his schematic play, Fonda nonetheless distinguishes it with integrity and class."
    David Rooney