Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wasting Away

33 Variations

Written and directed by Moises Kaufman

Starring Jane Fonda, Samantha Mathis, Zach Grenier, Colin Hanks, Don Amendolia, Susan Kellermann, Erik Steele, Diane Walsh

Performances February 9-May 24, 2009

Eugene O‘Neill Theatre
229 West 49th Street

Mathis, Hanks and Fonda in
33 Variations
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Jane Fonda’s return to the New York stage after 46 (!!!) years is the big news about 33 Variations, Moises Kaufman’s gimmicky play about a musicologist diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, as she researches Beethoven’s famous piano work, the Diabelli Variations.

As Katherine Brandt, Fonda is as compelling a presence as ever: that distinctive voice, the charismatic personality and the youthful 71-year-old looks are all on display as she tackles what’s essentially the ringmaster role, talking to the audience as she leads us through this essentially bogus story.

Kaufman’s cunningly-constructed play touches on important themes—the origin of art, art vs. life, the effect of debilitating diseases on creativity and relationships, etc.—but that’s not the same as studying them in resonant detail. The Beethoven scenes are nearly as buffoonish as Amadeus—can audiences only handle seeing dumbed-down genius composers rather than intelligent studies of the creation of great music? Kaufman apparently agrees with Peter Shaffer on this one.

Contrarily, Katharine’s story is pure soap opera. Her talented but non-committal daughter Clara falls in love with Mike, who’s helping treat Katherine, while mother and daughter’s choppy relationship isn’t smoothed over by Katharine’s diagnosis or by her leaving for Bonn to study Beethoven’s notebooks. It’s all rather too uncomfortably reminiscent of a cable movie of the week in its plotting and resolution.

Kaufman plays the two stories off each other in clever but facile ways. Often, both plot threads play out simultaneously, and in a nod to Beethoven, Kaufman invents verbal fugues for his actors, who overlap each other’s dialogue. Ironically, a line in the play mentions how bad Beethoven was at writing fugues—Kaufman isn’t much better, primarily because he overdoes it. His own “grand fugue” at the close of Act I is a tour de force, but others, including one based on Beethoven’s towering Missa Solemnis late in the play, are decidedly not.

If 33 Variations is not particularly profound, it’s admittedly well-staged. Many of Beethoven’s variations are woven into the fabric of the story and played brilliantly by pianist Diane Walsh, who not only performs these technically demanding pieces but also must play in tune, so to speak, with the actors’ dialogue. This gives the play more heft than it deserves.

Kaufman is a better director than writer, so his play’s holes are smoothed over by his busy staging, with the great composer and intrepid musicologist rubbing shoulders through the centuries (literally, at one point, in an ill-advised and jokey scene). Derek McLane’s impressive scenic design—dozens of sheets of music paper hung up on the walls, and shelves of boxes holding Beethoven’s voluminous number of sketchbooks—is effectively married to David Lander’s canny lighting.

The luminous Fonda is joined by the gifted and appealing Samantha Mathis, who makes Clara far more humane and sympathetic than Kaufman has written her. Colin Hanks comes across as too goofy to be believable as Mike, Katharine’s caregiver and Clara’s lover. Zach Grenier could be a forceful Beethoven if the context called for it, but he does have one trenchant scene describing the composition of the final variation as Walsh performs. It’s a “Classical Music for Dummies” moment, but it works dramatically.

Full disclosure: my grandmother died of ALS 20 years ago, so I may have been more affected watching Fonda’s brilliantly enacted degeneration of a body at the expense of a fertile mind than someone without that personal link. Either way, Kaufman’s skimpy play doesn’t support such a rich subject or authoritative interpreter.

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