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Jane Fonda in '33 Variations' on Broadway: What did the critics think?

March 10, 2009 |  9:30 am


After a 46-year absence, Jane Fonda has returned to Broadway in Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations."  The play, staged by Kaufman ("The Laramie Project," “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde"), opened Monday at the Eugene O'Neill Theater.

"33 Variations" revolves around a terminally ill musicology professor with Lou Gehrig's disease trying to solve a music mystery while dealing with her fractured relationship with her daughter. A separate production (sans Fonda) was seen at the La Jolla Playhouse last year.

The 71-year-old Oscar-winning actress leads a cast that also features Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks (son of Tom, in his Broadway debut),  Zach Grenier, Susan Kellermann, Don Amendolia, Erik Steele and Diane Walsh.

So what did the critics think? Read below to find out what they said:

Jane_fondaLike most of the critics, Ben Brantley of the New York Times liked Fonda's performance more than the play itself: "Ms. Fonda’s layered crispness is , I regret to add, a contrast to Mr. Kaufman’s often soggy play, which sends her character on a quest to unlock, with a mortal deadline looming before her, a musical mystery about the Beethoven composition of the title."

"It's been 46 years since Jane Fonda's last role on Broadway," writes David Rooney of Variety, "but there's no sign of rustiness in the cool command she brings to "33 Variations."

Peter Marks of the Washington Post ponders the agelessness of Fonda, saying: "She not only manages to transcend time, but also the material. For '33 Variations' ... marks a pleasing Broadway return for Fonda, even if it's little more than a handsomely annotated music lesson."

Praising Fonda's "robust and confident performance," Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News writes, "The Oscar winner brings everything to this role that's made her an iconic film star: Pure enthusiasm, toughness tempered by vulnerability, and that distinctive voice which makes every line fascinating."

John Simon of Bloomberg News, an admitted fan of the actress, writes: "Fonda gives a sterling performance, never milking the pathos."

"It's hard not to wish she hadn't chosen a more effective vehicle for her return to the theater," Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter says of Fonda.

Michael Kuchwara of the Associate Press says "the play often seems dramatically tepid and slow moving," but unenthusiastically adds that "Fonda is fine as Katherine, a university musicologist dying of amyotropic lateral sclerosis."


"Fonda plays Katherine with wit and compassion, and manages to make her physical struggles credible and compelling — even if you don't believe for a second that a woman can look this good while her muscles are atrophying," writes Elysa Gardner of USA Today.

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post writes "there are quite a few issues with '33 Variations.' But the biggie is the difficulty of believing that anything, including Lou Gehrig's disease, could slow down Fonda's character, Katherine Brandt. The patrician actor remains poised until the very end."

Linda Winer of Newsday says Fonda "seemed brittle and uncomfortable in the talky first act, but warmed up admirably as the fast-moving disease gave her physical challenges to perform."

Ed Pilkington, writing for the Guardian, notes that Fonda "stumbled over lines, her voice sounded tentative and thin." But, he adds, "her acting is understated -- crucial in a play that could be saccharine were it not for its pared down delivery."

Stephanie Zacharek of New York magazine writes of Fonda: "She may be playing an excessively cerebral academic, but the physicality of her performance is what sticks with you."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sends Wendell Brock to review (remember -- Fonda used to be married to CNN homeboy Ted Turner). He writes that Fonda "transcends the glare -- with a performance that’s as haunting as it is historic."

-- Lisa Fung

Photo (top): Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks and Jane Fonda in "33 Variations." Credit: Joan Marcus

Photo (middle): Jane Fonda. Credit: Joan Marcus

Photo (bottom): Susan Kellermann and Jane Fonda. Credit: Joan Marcus

Comments () | Archives (5)

Jane Fonda is back on the boards where she belongs. She is not only a fine, beautiful , confident mastercraftswoman and artist but an American Icon. Jane s has been and will always be a woman who distills the times and reflects it back, illuminated, to her audience.

Some great reviews. I hope that Jane Fonda will come to LA with her play.

Saw this in previews and thought it improved as the evening progressed. Fonda is elegant as always. The story of the origin of Beethoven's "33 Variations" was fun and interesting without being pedantic.

I think the beginning could be improved by having both Beethoven and Fonda die and flashback from there as parallel lives.

I saw performance of 33 on 04/29/09, later in the run. Fonda was supreme, as was the full cast. Colin Hanks even blushed when his character made a faux pas. Every part was cast and performed to perfection.

The writing, directing, and inter-twining of stories were done masterfully, and this play has stayed with me. That is a hallmark of artistic excellence of any sort.

Anyone who thinks Jane Fonda is too physically superior did not see The Elephant Man (the play), in which the title character was performed by a hot young actor WITHOUT makeup -- all malformities and inner discomfort were portrayed through acting and body, and other actors' reactions to him. This is also what Ms. Fonda did.

She should get a Tony nom for this.

I saw the play last night at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles. I was very moved by the entire production - from script to set design to lighting. The script was beautifully conceived with intertwining metaphors. Jane Fonda was astounding and received a standing ovation. I will never forget this play.


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