Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman
Music by Ludwig van Beethoven
Starring Jane Fonda
Pianist and Musical Director: Diane Walsh
Through March 6, 2011
Jane Fonda is a commanding presence on the stage, all the more so as she stares the audience down with her eternally toned and youthful physical bearing. Forgive us mere mortal females who have not attained such perfection. I kid you not; not even in Hollywood do women her age look so good. Fonda gives a compelling performance in Moisés Kaufman‘s “33 Variations” at the Ahmanson Theatre, a venue whose cavernous size is not always the best for spoken drama. Playing a renowned musicologist, she has the steely authority of a professor imbued with the confidence and smug self-assurance that recognition and tenure can bring. That is, even if recognition and tenure do not generally endow one with her face, her hair, her body, and wardrobe.
“33 Variations” refers to the Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations.” Anton Diabelli was an influential music publisher in Vienna. He wrote a trivial waltz and asked fifty composers to each write a variation to be compiled in a book he would subsequently publish. At first Beethoven could not be bothered with such nonsense, but then he became obsessed with the waltz and wrote 33 variations over the course of four years. The variations, if not familiar to most in the audience, have been a topic of great interest and debate in the world of musicology. No one knows for certain why Beethoven changed his mind and why, having done so, he wrote so many.
Enter Dr. Katherine Brandt (Fonda). Although having been given the horrendous diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and rapidly failing, she is undeterred in her obsession with the variations. She is unstoppable in her plans to travel to the Beethoven archives in Bonn and spend months of investigation. Her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) tries to persuade her to remain. Brandt has disdainful affection for Clara, whose life, lacking her mother’s drive and lofty ambitions, Brandt describes as “mediocre.”
Off Brandt goes to Bonn and the archives that are lorded over by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburgen (Susan Kellermann), a forceful Germanic presence who over the course of the play’s two and a quarter hours and Brandt’s terminal decline, shows herself to be a briskly caring, attentive friend. As Brandt’s disease progresses, her daughter, accompanied by the male nurse who treated Brandt in the U.S. and with whom her daughter has become involved, come to Bonn where the tragedy of the mother/daughter friction and disconnect plays out once again. Brandt is disappointed in her again.
Kaufman, who also authored “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” is an original and creative playwright. He is not bound by ordinary conventions of dialogue. Characters may turn and lecture the audience at great length, and they are not bound to be realistic. Humor is sprinkled in the most serious moments. Time may switch back and forth; in the case of “33 Variations” that mounts up to over the course of more than 175 years. It works. Derek McLane’s clever scenic design, sketchy and briskly changing, complements the lively flow of time.
Most of what is known about this period in Beethoven’s life comes from the writings of Anton Schindler, who functioned as assistant, friend, bête noire, and ultimately biographer of the composer’s later years. Much controversy has raged around the accuracy of his portrayal. Caricatures of Beethoven, the music publisher Diabelli, and Schindler act out snippets of the story. The music, crisply played by Diane Walsh, is heard in bits and pieces as Brandt expounds on the making of it.
Musicologist and author William Kinderman served as Kaufman’s consultant on the project, and the playwright’s point of view is based on Kinderman’s highly regarded Beethoven scholarship. Herein lies a problem. With so much going for it, “33 Variations,” like its heroine, strays too often into the didactic. An interesting device for a while, it becomes overbearing as the evening progresses. For most of the audience, the drama lies in the personalities, yet much of the emphasis is on the academic.
In 1999, Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for “Wit,” the story of a professor, an expert in the arcane, who is felled by a terminal disease, cancer. “Wit” is a gripping and convincing drama about a woman who put scholarship ahead of all else and who neglected personal connections only to reach out in the end. Lacking the entertaining and slightly brittle character of “33 Variations,” “Wit” is much more moving in its honesty. Fonda’s illness is rarely convincing, and it is not helped by her aforementioned incredible appearance. Though she pushed a walker, then rode in a wheelchair, only episodes of choking seemed real. Despite this, and at least part of the blame should be placed on Kaufman’s direction, Fonda is still wonderful to watch, and probably much of the reason the theater was full. Sadly, Kaufman’s overemphasis on the didactic shortchanges character development, but that, after all, is the personality of Dr. Katherine Brandt. Maybe it all works if you think of “33 Variations” itself as but another variation.