Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Jane Fonda, Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Zach Grenier, Don Amendolia, Susan Kellerman, Erik Steele, Diane Walsh
Moisés Kaufman, author of the new Broadway play 33 Variations, is best known for his work as writer and director of plays like Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and, perhaps most famously, The Laramie Project.|
His plays are often ambitious and frequently successful. 33 Variations, which mainly serves as a vehicle for Oscar-winner Jane Fonda, who returns to Broadway after a 46-year absence, is a little bit of both, a satisfying, if uneven, look at the parallels between a 19th-century musical mystery concerning Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and a 21st-century fictional musicologist named Katherine Brandt (Fonda).
The story is this: Dr. Katherine Brandt, recently diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, is a musicologist set to give a paper at a prestigious university.
She hopes she'll solve the riddle behind a set of variations composed by Ludwig von Beethoven after a middling waltz by music publisher Anton Diabelli. Diabelli, who dispersed his mediocre composition to a wide variety of composers, hoped only to receive one variation from each composer. Beethoven, however, hopelessly enchanted by the waltz, instead produced 33. Why was he so taken by a second-rate composition? What beauty could be found in a beer hall waltz?
Despite her daughter Clara's protests, Brandt sets out for Bonn, Germany, where Beethoven's sketches are kept in an archive, hoping to find the elusive answers she desires. She doesn't expect her health to deteriorate as quickly as it does, however, and she's soon joined by Clara and her new boyfriend Mike, who struggle to care for her as she undertakes her work.
The play's construction aspires to the illumination of grand themes. The physical suffering of both Brandt and Beethoven is pitted against the rigor of their work and the elusiveness of their intentions. Kaufman uses overlapping dialogue and the physical intrusion of the past characters during the present-day scenes as a visual means to cue this connection to an audience. Sadly though, a measure of clunky dialogue gets in the way, particular as the first act nears its close.
The undeniable joy of the production lies in watching Fonda sink her teeth into a role that she's absolutely suited for. As Dr. Brandt, she's ballsy and confident when she needs to be but utterly heartbreaking as her character realizes that time is running out.
The best bits of the play are given to her in a series of enthusiastic monologues dealing passionately with Beethoven's musical, spoken over Diane Walsh's beautiful playing of the music in question at stage right. It's made very clear in these scenes that Brandt has a passionate, almost possessive relationship with music, a quality that both excites and wearies her as she begins to wonder about the soundness of her priorities.
Providing support for Fonda are Zach Grenier as a tortured, tatty Beethoven, as well as Samantha Mathis and Colin Hanks, who give adequate performances as the play's young couple, roles significantly less interesting than those inhabited by the production's older actors.
Scenic design by Derek McLane is noteworthy, particularly because of the use of fluid projections as well as the striking image of towering drawers and files filled with Beethoven's work which tower over the proceedings, an omnipresent burden and fascination for the characters.
When the plausibility of the play's attempts at beauty-through-the-ages stoicism begins to waver, Kaufman's swift direction keeps everything moving fleetly. Though his writing is at times uneven, it's Kaufman's visual flair and understanding of the stage that make 33 Variations as enjoyable as it is to watch despite its flaws.
As, while being X-rayed, a scantily-clad Fonda leans wistfully onto Beethoven's back through time and space, the striking juxtaposition between past and present begins to shift into focus. Here, in the wordless moments of the production, do Kaufman's ideas about the seamlessness of time mean the most.