33 Variations is not only an excellent, elegant and very theatrical play written by Moises Kaufman but it is also the vehicle that has brought Jane Fonda triumphantly back to the New York stage after an absence of forty six years – portraying musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, who is obsessed with discovering why Beethoven became equally obsessed with an insignificant waltz written by his music publisher Anton Diabelli – so much so that instead of the single variation requested, Ludwig went on to write 33 – keeping “the Diabelli Variations” from being published for many years. This is no mere documentary-like history lesson, this is a remarkably poignant and oft times amusing examination of the lives of two equally obsessed artists.
Dr. Brandt is slowing wasting away, dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She is deteriorating daily but that won’t stop her from leaving behind her grown but unstable (or so she believes) daughter Clara (a remarkable Samantha Mathias) who to put it mildly, she has a strained relationship with – and flying off to Bonn, Germany to find the answers to her questions by searching through the archives of Beethoven’s variations with the aid of Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (a compassionate and very droll Susan Kellermann). Beethoven (a tyrannical Zach Grenier) is also deteriorating – going deaf and a bit mad trying to finish the variations that he can’t seem to finish. There is always one more.
It is a most fascinating journey. Brilliantly directed by Mr. Kaufman – as we witness both stories being played out simultaneously, being interwoven – the past and the present – on the stage of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre where we are surrounded by the archives and masses of musical manuscripts (Scenic Design – Derek McLane and wonderfully lit by David Lander) with Diane Walsh off to one side playing the “Variations” beautifully and unobtrusively when needed. It is a most exciting and exhilarating evening of theatrical surprises.
As the nurse who is taking care of Dr. Brandt, Colin Hanks is a natural, easy going guy. Always saying something that comes out the wrong way or is taken the wrong way. He is endearing as he falls in love with Clara. Their scenes together are a joy – a mini romantic comedy amidst the dramatic turmoil around them. Erik Steele as Anton Schindler, biographer of Beethoven and put upon manservant, is marvelous in fleshing out his complicated dealings with Beethoven. Don Amendolia as Anton Diabelli who literally goes from rags to riches while waiting for the variations to be finished is first rate.
But the evening belongs to Jane Fonda as she takes command of the stage from her very first entrance to her final standing ovation. From standing erect and being a tower of strength and hiding her emotions to slowing using a walker and then a wheel chair she is the consummate artist, slowly coming to grip with her destiny and relationship with her daughter and life itself. She looks fabulous and has that distinctive Fonda voice that can say so much with a pause or an inflection. She wants to bare her soul but it finds it difficult to do so and that adds so much more to the already wonderful text. I highly recommend this production. You will not be disappointed. You will be thrilled. 15 WEEKS ONLY! www.33variations.com