“33 variations” written and directed by moisés kaufman
starring jane fonda will open at the eugene o’neill theatre on monday night. i went to a press preview the night before last.
moisés kaufman wrote and directed the play about a musicologist, dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (lou gehrig’s disease), her obsession with understanding beethoven’s “33 variations on a waltz by anton diabelli” and her (not good) relationship with her grown daughter.
background: in 1819, anton diabelli, a struggling music publisher, had the idea of inviting the 50 best-known composers in vienna to write variations on a simple waltz he’d composed. he’d then compile the variations and have a best-seller. 49 composers submitted a variation. beethoven submitted 33… what about a mediocre piece of music written by an amateur composer prompted such an amazing creative response from a genius? that question is the framework for the character studies that make this play.
“33 variations” slides back and forth (with a few collisions) between the present and the early 19th century. fonda is musicologist, dr. katherine brandt, an emotionally repressed woman who relates better to manuscripts than people. zack grenier is fantastic as beethoven. samantha mathis is clara, the daughter who can’t please her mother. and colin hanks (tom’s son) is clara’s love interest. pianist diane walsh’s live performance of bits of the variations from just off stage is inspired.
banks of floor to ceiling shelving units (that continue beyond the proscenium) stacked with archive boxes provide a framework for simple sets. beautiful and effective.
though jane fonda is meant to be the draw for this production, i found her to be the least compelling actor. she fumbled around her part at the beginning of the first act and even as she warmed into it, couldn’t keep herself from using unconvincing arm waving to portray excitement. by the end of the first act she was in the part and she was (mostly) working for me. the second act was much better. possibly because by that point in the story, due to the progression of her disease, her hands were clenched and hung at the end of her limp arms. what a relief not to have to watch the flailing.
the script isn’t perfect, but it’s quite good. kaufman goes for some easy laughs and his dailogue can be stilted. but as the relationships between the different stories (beethoven’s & dr. brant’s) develop, the play coalesces into an interesting meditation on the artistic process. for me, the most interesting aspect was something i’d been talking to friends about earlier in the day. an artist creates something and may or may not understand completely what it “means.” critics and historians develop complex interpretations for the work of art. in my experience, frequently, those readings of the artwork can be pretty far from what the artist intended. the meaning they find is more about who they are and where they are in their lives than about the artist’s intent. but i think that good art comes to life when it has an audience. that means that it’s different things to different people. and even contains different meaning for the same person at different points of their life.
good play. oh, and jane fonda, at 71, looks fabulous.