Tag Archives: play

33 Variations

“Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend. ”
– Ludwig van Beethoven

True artists are their art. There is no separation between the human being and their creation; humans are merely a vessel for their creation.

These are some of the hypotheses offered in Moisés Kaufman’s new play, 33 Variations, which is currently in previews tn-500_fondawm0129211488at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. The idea of combining the story of how a series of songs came to be through the eyes of both Beethoven, himself, and the musicologist studying his sketches nearly two hundred years later, is what initially drew me to this play. When it was announced Jane Fonda, after a 46 year absence from the stage, had signed on to play musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, I bought my ticket knowing that the words “sold out” would likely follow soon after.

As expected, I was the youngest person in the theater, by a good 30+ years — and that’s being generous. Nearly everyone at the Sunday matinee I attended came to see Jane. They thought they had an idea of the Jane they were going to see: Barefoot In the Park Jane, Klute Jane, Julia Jane, Coming Home Jane, The China Syndrome Jane, and, maybe even Hanoi Jane. If you grew up in my generation, however, your point of reference is more likely to be this Jane:jane-fonda2
which is probably why the audience tipped in favor of the grey-headed set.

But now the older crowd has one-upped their younger, theater-going counterparts, because 33 Variations is a beautiful, exquisite, modern work of theater. It is everything a play should be and more. Frankly, I’m almost surprised it made it up to Broadway and didn’t find a home downtown. It has the feel of experimental theater with a spare, but detailed and ingenious set, which combines pen, ink, paper, piano, sound, words, and musical visuals, via a screen on stage.

Moisés Kaufman has created an original piece of theater that marries language and music in an arresting fashion. To hear each line played on a piano by Diane Walsh, while Ludwigkellermannandfonda van Beethoven (played tremendously by Zach Grenier) “thinks” each note through out loud allows you to feel as if you are right there with him. In the words of Dr. Katherine Brandt, “I feel like I am looking over his shoulder as he composes.”

There were beautiful moments of straight monologue underscored, softly, by the piano, that nearly had me in tears. Like when Dr. Brandt says Beethoven’s variations stopped time: “They found moments to live in and expand. Right before he takes her hand to dance, when he misses a step, or asks, ‘will she like me? ‘” And, the goal of the present-day story in 33 Variations is to stop time as well. Katherine needs time to finish her paper, to learn more about her daughter, and to leave the world with one last thesis proved.

Oddly enough, for a woman so well-learned, Dr. Brandt seems content not having any sort of self-exploration beyond her investigation into the past of others. The story might be at fault here, but this is where Jane Fonda shines the brightest. In Dr. Katherine Brandt, Fonda has created a character, a vessel, that does not allow second-guessing. She comes up with a hypothesis and proves it, no further questions asked. The confidence, cockiness and self-absorption run high, but instead of writing the character off as a bitch, Fonda plays her as a deeply flawed, but fiercely intelligent woman. Perhaps the kind of woman we all are, deep down. She may show a few cracks, but does not break. She is, quite possibly, the ultimate expression of the public woman.

The supporting cast carve their own characters so meticulously, it feels as if each of them take turns becoming our lead actor, from Susan Kellerman (Katherine’s German counterpart, in more ways than one) to Samantha Mathis (who portrays Katherine’s daughter) and the dynamic Don Amendolia (as the music publisher, Diabelli who composes the thema on which Beethoven’s variations are based), Erik Steele (as “Friend of Beethoven”), Colin Hanks as “Nurse Mike,” (who manages to make the most of a part thatfullcompany331 could use a little more), and of course, Zach Grenier as Ludwig van Beethoven, they are all vital notes in each of the variations. It is a testament to both Kaufman as a writer-director, and the cast themselves, who appear to have the utmost respect for each other and allow each character, each variation, its moment to shine.

With all the revivals and adaptations, it’s rare to walk out of a theater feeling as if you’ve witnessed something unique and learned a few things along the way, but 33 Variations allowed me to feel a glimmer of promise for the future of theater. Hopefully, this play will inspire the work of other playwrights and perhaps in their work, we’ll catch a similar turn of phrase, a note, emotion, or maybe even discover the next Beethoven.
–Downtown

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The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents

I’ve been seeing a lot of theater lately, but hadn’t really been impressed by anything. I wasn’t carrying a tune with me when I left a preview of the new Sondheim musical, ROADSHOW, nor was I leaving a theater still thinking about what I’d just seen (THE SEAGULL; A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) … until tonight, when I saw The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents at The Wild Project.

A little synopsis from the producers: After ten years on tranquillizers, Dora emerges with an adamant sexual hunger that pits her violently against a secret and deviant adult world…not your normal coming of age story; not your everyday sexual awakening.

The play is a beautiful meditation on our relationship — as both individuals and a society — to sexuality and the act of sex, no matter which adjective one uses to describe it. As viewed through the eyes of the protagonist, Dora, it makes you wonder, for a moment, why it’s such an uneasy subject matter between parent and child.

There were several elements of the story that are reminiscent of the 1996 film, Citizen Ruth, (minus the campiness). The play is more like peeling back layers of an onion and not just because of the moral, ethical and political questions that arise, but the sheer emotional levels you go through, as if each scene opens up a trap door to a new depth of feeling.

The production of Sexual Neuroses is elegantly directed by Kristijan Thor. The cast is hard-working and I adored them all, but the two biggest standouts, who make it seem effortless, are Grace Gummer and Max Lodge. Both these young actors have that innate, instinctual acting qualities which allow their power to quietly unfold through their characters. It makes me feel confident both will have big, bright futures ahead of them. And, I’m glad I’ll have the privilege of saying “I saw them when …”

P.S. Based on what I read about the play in NY Magazine, Miss Gummer never had the intention of being on stage, rather she was “doing costume design in Rome.” I hope after this experience she’ll reconsider, or at least pursue both.

– Downtown

City Sidewalks and Childhood Dreams

Living downtown, I have seasonal walking routes. In the dead of winter I like to walk by storefronts to window shop and because I know they will be shoveled and salted to near perfection. In the spring, I’ll take any route that has me walking by the Chelsea flower market. Even when it’s still early spring, it’s nice to smell and see the promise of summer in all of the beautiful flowers and small trees. Summer brings me back to the storefronts, hoping I’ll time my passing correctly with that of a customer entering/leaving the store — a cold blast of air-conditioned air hits the spot during a humid day. But my favorite walk has to be past the Bleecker Street Playground. A decently-sized island of childhood bliss, the park boasts sandboxes, swings, playground equipment and, sprinklers!!! The playground’s happy hour is right after the 3:00 school bell. Moms, nannies, babysitters and (more & more) Dads stand around and chat pleasantly with other parents while their children play at complicated imaginary games.

As a 20-something with no immediate thoughts of motherhood, you would think the idea of passing a gaggle of post-school children would irritate me, interfering with the music coming from my iPod, but the writer in me takes over as I watch them play and I’m fascinated by what they create. Their imaginations are so strong and their visual sense so acute, I think they might make better authors of fiction than their adult counterparts — if not for nap times interfering with their workday.

Walking by the playground is a bit like listening to a pit orchestra warming up before a show. A few high squeaks, low moans and whines, and the clank of the wrought iron gate greeting the latest entrants into the park. The sense of electricity and excitement cannot be denied. Bleecker Street playground has a particular smell to it as well. Unlike the flowers that dot the nearby corner market, the park yields the sweet scent of child perspiration, the fragrant green leaf and bark mix of trees, and the light spritz of NYC water mixed with a rusty odor from the hundred-year-old pipes.

Chaos ensues when Mr. Softee pulls up alongside the curb. Children screech with delight — so excited are they to see the promise of sugar, that they run, wet from the sprinklers and shoe-less, onto the city sidewalk (I have to admit it makes me squeamish to think of all the germs their innocent little feet are picking up). But no matter, these children are oblivious to grit and grime and focused on how to get their adult in charge to fork over ice cream money. You can aways tell the parents from the nannies: parents carry wholesome snacks, while the nannies have already attempted feeding their charges the health food, only to be denied. Ice cream offers those caretakers the promise of ending their day without anymore (ahem) meltdowns.

While passing the park gives me joy, it’s also mixed with a little bit of melancholy. Because after all, who doesn’t want to be that young again? If not for just one afternoon.

–DT