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In the first scene of Moises Kaufman’s deeply moving 33 Variations, Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), a musicologist in the early stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), poses a question: Why did a genius like Beethoven devote himself in his precious later years to writing a variation on a mediocre waltz composed by his publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia)? Four years later, Beethoven produced not one but 33 variations, commonly called the Diabelli Variations, and revolutionized the piano form as well.
Kaufman, who also directs, uses this question as a springboard to examine several weighty themes concerning the nature of art and obsession and their intimate connection to sickness and dying. This may sound a tad grim, but the writer-director handles the material with such a light, deft, witty touch, the result is not only invigorating but illuminating as few plays are of this genre.
Most of the credit for this accomplishment goes to the presence of Beethoven, beautifully and bumptuously brought to life by Zach Grenier, and his music, finely played by Diane Walsh. As the play moves nimbly back and forth through time and space, Beethoven’s and Brandt’s physical decline come to parallel each other as well as providing a window into their struggle for a kind of spiritual transcendence to ease them through their respective journeys.
Fonda faces the difficult challenge of playing a character we only really know through the themes and ideas she represents. But with her crisp intelligence and hyper-alert sensibility, she is a good match for Brandt, and it’s a pleasure to watch her deepen the character as the evening progresses.
Brandt’s troubled relationship with her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) is due largely to her narrow and bloodlessly cerebral approach to life’s imperfections and her disdain for mediocrity. Under the pressure of her wasting illness and her obsession with Beethoven, she becomes the embodiment of the very piece of music she is struggling to understand: a theme with more variations, perhaps, then even she anticipated.
This is mostly the same cast that did the play on Broadway two years ago, and to an actor they are superb. Grant James Varjas is amusing as Beethoven’s semi-trusted associate Anton Schindler, while Greg Keller is similarly amusing as the male nurse to whom Clara is attracted. Susan Kellermann is properly Teutonic as the dutiful but helpful archive librarian who assists Brandt in Bonn. This is an archive we become visually familiar with through Derek McLane’s brilliant set design.
There is a lovely culminating scene in which the development of Beethoven’s music from simple beer-hall waltz to elegant minuet is vividly personified by all the characters. Music lovers and theater lovers alike won’t be disappointed by this affecting piece.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through March 6)
Cast: Jane Fonda, Zach Grenier, Grant James Varjas, Samantha Mathis, Greg Keller, Susan Kellermann, Don Amendolia, Diane Walsh
Director: Moises Kaufman
Music by: Ludwig van Beethoven
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Lighting designer: David Lander
Sound designer: Andre J. Pluess
Costume designer: Janice Pytel
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