Any play that begins by projecting the word “theme” across the stage must be making a statement. In Moises Kaufman’s new drama that statement leads to some thick soup.
In “33 Variations”, Fonda portrays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who is writing a monograph about the birth of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, how it came about, and what it is. Sadly, this academic quest which frames the story, also dominates it. Parallels between Beethoven’s deafness and Brandt’s terminal illness, between Beethoven’s creative process and Brandt’s personal revelations proliferate.
Zach Grenier portrays The Composer as a Phantom of the Opera version of a grotesque genius. He shouts tunes out of key, brutally mistreats his loyal assistant, Schindler (Erik Steele), and expresses such a contemptuous opinion of the composer/music publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) that his behavior verges on vulgarity.
Truthful or not, this weaving of fantasy with history trivializes the material and impedes the audience’s clarity. I found it entirely sophomoric, especially when the maestro taking off into his own musical world, talks through his composition while the pianist, Diane Walsh performs it. To imply that we, like Dr. Brandt, could actually enter Beethoven’s imagination is pointless and belittling of the genius. Similarly, the scenes in which Brandt and Beethoven interact go over the top.
Matters are not made any clearer by Fonda’s tentative acting. At the preview I attended, she fumbled a couple of lines and had difficulty projecting throughout the first Act. Ironically, in Act II as Brandt’s illness causes her to loose control of her speech, the actor became more audible.
On the other hand, as Brandt’s issues move from Beethoven’s music manuscripts to the immediate concerns with her own mortality and to her relationship with her daughter, Fonda’s presence becomes stronger. Finally, these fundamental human interactions offer more fodder for the actor.
Samantha Mathis portrays Clara, the estranged daughter whose task it is to care for her failing mother with whom she has a difficult and combative relationship. She is aided by Brandt’s nurse, (Colin Hanks), a friendly, laid back sort of guy who falls in love with her.
These divergent story lines – Beethoven’s obsession with a seemingly ordinary waltz, Brandt’s research into the “33 Variations”, her battle with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and her unease around her daughter — are supposed to be seamless. Yet the unifying elements are not always clear. Conceivably, Kaufman is offering us an allegory here. Just as Beethoven eventually discovered the richness of his native beer hall music in Diabelli’s composition, Brandt finally discovers beauty and truth in that which is closest and dearest to herself. Where truth is beauty, so is simplicity.
If “Variations” veers from Kaufman’s earlier docudrama style, it also falls short of those intensely dramatic and insightful works, “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”, both of which are based on reported events, documented conversations, trial transcripts and biographies. They are also both plays about men in homosexual relationships.
The simplicity in staging which characterized those productions carries through Derek McLane’s sets. Beethoven’s library is the sum of metal stacks and bound books; the hospital is Brandt’s bed. Coupled with Jeff Sugg’s projections of Beethoven’s manuscripts, Brandt’s cat scans and some surrounding environments, the atmosphere is essentially eerie.
By far the most enjoyable element in the production is Beethoven’s music, performed by Diane Walsh. But like Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, this drama about a great composer is more showy stage business than artful substance. Despite lofty intentions, the play’s parallels between the musicologist and her subject are more reductive than deifying.
By: Isa Goldberg
If you go:
What: “33 Variations”
Where: Eugene O’Neill Theatre at 230 West 49th Street
When: Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. with a Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday matinee at 3:00 p.m. through May 24th.
Tickets: Call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, go online to HYPERLINK "http://www.telecharge.com" www.telecharge.com or visit the box office.