Monday, March 16, 2009

33 Variations

It’s been 46 years since Jane Fonda was last on Broadway, but you would never know it from watching her performance in this intriguing new play written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre through May 24.

Fonda plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist trying to solve a centuries-old mystery about why Beethoven, one of the world's greatest composers, spent four years of his later life writing 33 variations of what was considered a mediocre waltz by Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. She is perplexed as to why he would pursue that rather than his own great work, especially in light of his impending deafness.

Just as Beethoven had raced against time, so must Katherine fight a ticking clock to find her answer before the Lou Gehrig’s disease with which she has been diagnosed robs her of her movement and ultimately her life.

33 Variations isn’t a great play -- a couple of the minor plots are quite conventional -- but it’s extremely entertaining. I was involved from beginning to end. I liked the contrasting scenes -- Beethoven (Zach Grenier) in 19th century Austria with his obsession and modern day Katherine in New York and Bonn, Germany, with hers. The act one curtain closer interweaves past and present as each desperately cries out in unison: “I need more time. I must have a chance to finish the work.”

A wonderful touch is that we’re able to hear Beethoven’s music as he composes thanks to musical director Diane Walsh who plays the piano at the foot of the stage within sight of the audience.

The conventional subplots involve Clara (Samantha Mathis), Katherine’s daughter, and their difficult relationship and Clara’s boy-meets-girl relationship with Mike (Colin Hanks, in photo with Mathis and Fonda), Katherine’s nurse. When I say conventional I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that they’re pretty standard fare in an otherwise original story. I liked these characters -- and actors -- so I cared about them.

I also very much liked Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, a librarian at the Beethoven archives in Bonn where Katherine does her research. The two women develop a friendship, with Gertrude helping Katherine with her work, and her dying.

Rounding out the cast are Don Amendolia as Diabelli and Erik Steele as Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary.

Derek McLane provides a great set, which is dominated by floor to ceiling file cabinets housing years and years of musical scores and representing nicely the enormity of the task Katherine faces. Other scenes, such as a cafe or computer repair store, are depicted by adding minimal pieces of furniture. David Lander’s lighting heightens the dramatic effect.

The creative team is also made up of Janice Pytel (costumes), David C. Woolard (additional costumes) André Pluess (sound), Jeff Sugg (projection design), Charles LaPointe (hair/wig design) and Daniel Pelzig (choreography).

33 Variations marks Kaufman's debut as a Broadway playwright, but he had already hit my radar screen for his Tony-nominated direction several years ago of the Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife. He is the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, the award-winning nonprofit theatre company behind such plays as The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

While Fonda isn’t making her Broadway debut -- she did that at 22 in the 1960 play There Was a Little Girl for which she earned a Tony Award nomination for best featured actress -- it is the first time most of us are seeing her on the boards. Her last appearance on Broadway was in the 1963 drama Strange Interlude.

As Katherine, she portrays a strong, aggressive woman, a part that would seem a natural for her, but then she must show the stages of Katherine’s physical decline and she does this movingly and effectively.

Neither her performance nor the play are depressing, and the final scene is absolutely lovely.

Tickets for 33 Variations are available by visiting, calling (212) 239-6200 and at the box office of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.

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