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Sunday, 15 March 2009 15:47

Review: 33 Variations

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Susan Kellerman (L) and Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Susan Kellerman (L) and Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Photo: Joan Marcus

Frequently theatre critics get it wrong. That appears to be the case for 33 Variations the new play written and directed by Moisés Kaufman and now running at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. The play stars Jane Fonda as obsessed musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt. She and the rest of this talented cast turn what might otherwise be an evening analyzing a mundane subject into an emotionally engaging night of drama. Just why Beethoven would have spent three years agonizing over the creation of a waltz he initially considered trite is Dr. Brandt’s primary objective. All the while we watch as her physical condition deteriorates due to Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dr. Brandt’s life is juxtaposed against an ailing and poverty stricken Beethoven, played with intensity by Zach Grenier as he struggles to finish his Mass in C as well as the variations on Diabelli’s waltz. In the early 1800s music publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a short waltz and invited the best composers in Vienna to write a variation on this waltz. He would then publish these variations in one large volume. The story goes that Beethoven turned down the opportunity only to later change his mind. Beethoven then obsessed over the variations for nearly three years. He finally completes them when Diabelli tells Beethoven’s obsessively devout assistant, Anton Schindler, played with unending earnestness by Erik Steele that he has 30 days to finish the work or he would publish the other composer’s versions instead.

Zach Grenier as Ludwig von Beethoven in 33 Variations
Zach Grenier as Ludwig von Beethoven in 33 Variations
Photo: Joan Marcus

The play continually harkens back to the theme of never having enough time to learn and do all that we need to. This takes the form of Beethoven never being able to finish the variations or Dr. Brandt’s search for why the piece was written by Beethoven in the first place. Both face deteriorating health and an obsession with things still unfinished.

Samantha Mathis fervently play’s Dr. Brandt’s worried daughter, Clara Brandt. On a visit to her doctor, the young Brandt becomes mesmerized by the young nurse, Mike Clark. Clark is played by Colin Hanks (yes, son of Tom). He creates such a likeable and unaffected character he has you captivated from his first appearance. He has obviously learned a thing or two from his dad. There were moments when I would have sworn I saw a flourish of Forrest Gump in his performance.

Against her daughter’s wishes Dr. Brandt flies to Bonn, Germany to do research at the Beethoven-Haus. She is met there by a stern and stoic German woman, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger who is charged with overseeing the historical archives of the Beethoven-Haus. In the role of Dr. Ladenburger, Susan Kellermann has created a layered, albeit somewhat stereotypical character. Upon first meeting she seems stern and cold, hard to warm up to. In the end, it is Dr. Ladenburger who befriends and looks out for Dr. Brandt and ultimately forces mother and daughter together to discuss the things that need to be discussed at the end of one’s life.

This is not a perfect play. A large portion of the time the author/director has the characters acting as narrators and addressing the audience directly. I would like to have seen the actors interacting more with the other actors. It is because of this exquisite cast that we are able to move beyond this shortcoming.

The set, by Derek McLane is large rows of shelves to represent the archive deep in the basement of the Beethoven-Haus. The set is simple and effective. Jeff Sugg designed the projections used in the production. These are not overly complex but are used to great effect during a moment when we see and hear Beethoven moving through the thought process of creating a fugue. The evening was accompanied by Dianne Walsh on piano. She underscores the evening beautifully with the 33 Variations. As Beethoven creates every crescendo and fortissimo of this fugue we see a projection of the piece appearing on parchment staff paper projected in the background. This scene is one of the most riveting in the production. The intensity and passion that Zach Grenier brings to the role of Beethoven is at its greatest when he is working through the creative process.

Susan Kellerman and Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Zach Grenier (in shadow) and Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Photo: Joan Marcus

This play is full of fresh and promising new talent as well as some well-honed talent we haven’t seen for a while. It has been 46 years since Jane Fonda appeared on Broadway in Strange Interlude. Ms. Fonda has shown that her time out of the spotlight did not dull her acting chops. This play has a limited run so I suggest you get your tickets while you can.

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In other reviews:

While Ben Brantley’s review in the NY Times praised Fonda’s performance he isn’t so keen on Kaufman’s play saying “Given the resonance of its star’s presence — and a plot that sets a fraught mother-daughter relationship to late music by Beethoven — “33 Variations” should be more moving as a whole than it is.” Read the full review.

In The Daily News Joe Dziemianowicz praises Fonda’s performance in his review saying “The Oscar winner brings everything to this role that's made her an iconic film star: Pure enthusiasm, toughness tempered by vulnerability, and that distinctive voice which makes every line fascinating.” Read the full review.

In speaking of Fonda, Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press says of Fonda “She may be centre stage much of the time, but we don't really learn much about her. Our emotional investment is limited as the woman's health slowly declines during her determined search for answers to Beethoven's obsession.” Read the full review.

In the Bergen Record, Robert Feldberg compares 33 Variations to Tom Stoppards Arcadia. “Kaufman's effort has its distinctive, and even lovely, moments, but, overall, it doesn't stack up very well against Stoppard's play.” Read the full review.

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Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2009 22:13