Written and Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Starring Jane Fonda with Zach Grenier
Eugene O'Neill Theatre / 230 West 49th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

There just does, doesn’t there, seem to be an instant spell cast when a good playwright takes a whack at speculative history? From the first image, the audience is transported and engaged in the question being posed. What really happened between Salieri and Mozart (Amadeus)? If a British diplomat doesn’t know his opera diva lover is a spy, that’s one thing; but how can he carry on an affair for years and not know his lover is also a man (M. Butterfly)?

                  The fascination is likely primal, because all that tacitly ties into the awe, fear and sense of mystery most of us feel toward/about death and where it will take us. The insistence of religious musings aside, there is no answer to what awaits us (if anything!) when we pass over, so a speculative drama that puts forth a solution to a real mystery as yet unsolved is rather like a pipeline to voices from beyond the grave. It’s as if someone’s saying there are actual answers.

                  With 33 Variations, author-director Moisés Kaufman manages to deal in history and death, only here death is an implacable, merciless clock. 21st century musicologist Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) has become more and more fascinated with the last work of Ludwig von Beethoven (Zach Grenier), 33 variations for piano, his story dramatized in parallel, intercut scenes set between 1819 and 1823.  According to the diaries of his loyal assistant, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), the little waltz sent him and composed by publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) as basis for but a single solicited variation for an anthology by various composers, was a nothing of a piece, a trifle. So why, then, did it take over the maestro’s life for three years near the end? What so obsessed him that he turned away from the grand orchestral world shakers, like the Mass (his last one) to concentrate on spinning out one musical rumination after another on a simple ditty?

                  Brandt travels to Bonn, to examine the Beethoven archives, where she strikes up a friendship with one of its curators, Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman), and where the degenerative muscle disease with which she’s been diagnosed starts to take hold. With the moral support of her grown daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) and her male nurse-therapist, with whom Clara has started a romantic relationship, Mike (Colin Hanks), Brandt needs to solve her mystery before death claims her. A wholly internal puzzle, one that can only be solved via staring at old papers and extrapolation…and yet, still, a race against time. While in the past, Beethoven’s increasingly failing health threatens to stop him before he’s done with the little waltz…

                  It’s not that Jane Fonda, assaying her first stage role in almost half a century, is a brilliant stage actress that makes her performance here such an event; it’s that whatever stage chops she had as a youngster, she still possesses: she has control, poise, authority and presence—and of course the cumulative experience of an amazing career and background—which provide all the needed compensations for a mid-wattage charisma and solid, though uninspired, character choices. Her sense of inner stillness, of inner herness, are worth the journey to see. The rest of the cast are in fine fettle, all roles played winningly, with standouts being the ubiquitous Mr. Grenier as an adorably cantankerous Beethoven; and the Amazonian Ms. Kellerman who gradually reveals a surprisingly spunky and compassionate spirit within her academic martinet. And one can’t underestimate the contribution of pianist/musical director Diane Walsh.

                  Staged simply with a minimum of artifice, Mr. Kaufman’s is a lovely little play about art and life and love—and sacrifice: of comfort for art, of health for knowledge, of home for family, of consequences for friendship—the small, intimate resonances go on and on. And then there’s the solution to that mystery. Which turns out to be small and intimate too. Yet as perfect and satisfying as—forgive me, I have to put it this way—a content, post-coital sigh.

                  This is a play that’s going to be around a while (despite the limited engagement notice: Jane Fonda may leave, but in a role such as this, a star can always be replaced); it tells a story that intrigues its audience, it provides roles that challenge and showcase its actors, and it’s well-tuned to the music of life. I, who know better than to make commercial predictions, predict a three-year run. One for every 11 variations…

Go to David Spencer's profile
Return to Home Page