33 Variations: A Race with Beethoven Against Time

Director and playwright Moises Kaufman, of The Laramie Project fame, came on stage at the beginning of 33 Variations, his latest show now in previews on Broadway, last Thursday to explain that he had added some last minute changes. Surprisingly so, since, although the play is new to New York, it has come third-hand via Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. The third time around for Kaufman, his direction and scenery haven’t changed, and despite his warning, and a few line flubs, it was a polished and elegant production of an engaging play.

There seems to be little to fool with, as this well-constructed play tells a fascinating set of stories. Musicologist and ALS patient Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) determinedly studies Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations to figure out why he would write so many variations on a mediocre waltz. Meanwhile, her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) tries to get close to her emotionally distant mother, who has less than a year to live, while Clara is also falling in love with a young nurse in the light romantic comedy subplot of this tightly-woven play.

We also watch Beethoven himself (Zach Grenier) work under an obsessive impulse to finish the variations while going deaf and becoming ill. Katherine, Clara, and Beethoven are all in a race against time, and as Katherine comes to feel, Beethoven’s 33 variations are a way of exploring all the possibilities and complexities existing in one moment in time.

Death is always the end, but in this case it does not denude the play of drama. The crux of the story becomes the conflict between mother and daughter, and Katherine’s need to finish her work. The interludes where Beethoven rages or Clara’s boyfriend tries to romance her are the delight of the play, lightening the sense of pathos that is always present yet which, I suspect, never fully plays out. On one hand we are saved from melodrama, and Kaufman’s language is delightfully restrained and natural. However, despite the competent acting of the players, some of the characters (the music publisher and the German librarian for example) stray into caricature, and Katherine would be more emotionally compelling if she broke down once.

The production of this piece is the well-honed result of its many stagings. The set was wonderfully handled to accommodate the switch between eras, and its versatile sparseness was modern, light, and effective, with sliding panes of music notes surrounded by shelves alternately accommodating 21st century Bonn and 18th century Vienna. A pianist accompanies the play with parts of the variations. Just as characters talk through time, the music and the characters interact as well. In addition to the drama of the piece, I enjoyed learning about Beethoven’s life and works, but also how to listen to him.

33 Variations boasts something for everyone. With its meditation on death, its historical and musical aspects, its touches of light romance, and the gorgeous intermingling of people and ideas across time, the play begs a full house. Combined with the fame of Moises Kaufman and Jane Fonda, it will be interesting to see if that is enough to reel in an audience during these hard economic times.

33 Variations continues at the Eugene O’Neil theater through May 24.

Originally published in Blogcritics Magazine on February 21.

2 thoughts on “33 Variations: A Race with Beethoven Against Time

  1. Nice job on summing up this play…but…
    one of my friends is the actor who plays the German Libriarian and has been with the play since inception…Ouch!
    A good piece of reportage…Kudos!

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