Theater Review: 33 Variations

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Musicology and melodrama mesh uneasily in "33 Variations," a new play by Moises Kaufman that marks Jane Fonda's return to Broadway after a mere 46-year hiatus. While this tale of a music historian's obsession with a mystery involving Beethoven is pretty thin stuff, abiding audience affection for its iconic star could result in solid business for its planned limited run.

Fonda, whose smashingly fit and sexy appearance at 71 is a testament to the power of great genes and aerobic exercise, plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a music historian desperate to uncover the reason the great composer spent his last years composing a staggering 33 variations on a simple, minute-long waltz written by a Viennese music publisher as a publicity stunt.

She thus travels to Bonn, where she examines Beethoven's original manuscripts under the watchful eye of a sardonic archivist (Susan Kellermann). There's a desperate urgency to her quest because she's suffering from a degenerative nerve disease that soon will prove fatal.

Running subplots involve Katherine's tense relationship with her restless daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), and Clara's burgeoning romantic relationship with Mike (Colin Hanks), a sweet male nurse.

Interspersed with action set in the present are scenes from 1819-23 in which we see a crotchety Beethoven (Zach Grenier), struggling with ill health and deafness, interacting with his loyal assistant (Erik Steele) and the waltz's composer, Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia), who can't believe his good fortune.

The play, which Kaufman describes as "a series of variations on a moment in a life," is most successful in its exploration of a fascinating episode in music history, with pianist Diane Walsh playing numerous excerpts from the work in question on a grand piano at the foot of the stage.

The dramatic elements, such as Katherine's increasingly desperate struggle with illness and Clara and Mike's awkward courtship, prove far less interesting, though the scenes involving Beethoven have an undeniably arresting "Amadeus"-like quality.

The many years since the star's previous stage work have taken a toll, with Fonda often seeming even stiffer than her increasingly physically challenged character. Because her role basically is reactive, the veteran actress really doesn't have much to play, and it's hard not to wish she hadn't chosen a more effective vehicle for her return to the theater.

Hanks (who has inherited his father Tom's easy charm) and Mathis are very appealing as the young lovers, but their cutesy interactions ultimately are more distracting than entertaining.

Kaufman, who also directs "Variations," provides nice touches in the staging, including a charming, climactic minuet danced by the ensemble. Unfortunately, they're not enough to rescue a play that could have used some of Beethoven's genius to produce more compelling variations on a slight theme.

Venue: Eugene O'Neill Theatre, New York (Through May 24)
Cast: Jane Fonda, Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks, Zach Grenier, Don Amendolia, Susan Kellermann, Erik Steele
Playwright-director: Moises Kaufman
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Janice Pytel
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Andre J. Pluess
Projection designer: Jeff Sugg
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