“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 at 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:
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 Ludwig 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 that 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.