Theater review: '33 Variations' at the Ahmanson Theatre
I know, I know — you’re all just dying to hear how Moisés Kaufman, the writer and director of “33 Variations,” which opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre, explains the origins of Beethoven’s “The Diabelli Variations.” I’ll get to that momentarily, but you’ll have to bear with me while I acknowledge the presence of another well known figure onstage, a certain movie star who is the reason quite a number of people not known to be regulars at the Philharmonic will eagerly turn out for this so-so play about the birth of a landmark piano work.
Yes, I’m speaking about the one and only Jane Fonda, who at 73 may just be nearing her peak of radiance. She plays Katherine Brandt, a sternly driven musicologist who has been diagnosed with the degenerative motor neuron disorder commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It's a weighty role that delves into similar parent-adult child territory that Fonda explored with her real-life father, Henry Fonda, in "On Golden Pond." But acting is almost beside the point here. With her trademark gym-bunny physique and coiffed magnificence, this Oscar-winning icon has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand the moment she makes her glamorous entrance.
This is no critique of Fonda’s commitment, which is noble in its characteristic fierceness. But the diamond-cut bone structure of her face, the recognizable crackle in her well-born voice and those impossibly lithe legs draped in slacks as though in a couturier’s dream are patented scene stealers. These superficial observations are encouraged both by nature (the Fonda gene pool) and nurture (costume designer Janice Pytel’s impeccable taste). And they provide a pleasant distraction from a drama that is a cross between Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” and a Lifetime TV tearjerker.
Katherine is determined to discover, before her body begins to betray her, the reason Beethoven spent so much time writing a series of variations on a second-rate waltz he reputedly once described as “a cobbler’s patch.” To find the answer, she travels to Bonn, Germany, against the wishes of her daughter, Clara (Mathis), a not particularly ambitious costume designer who’s concerned about her mother’s vulnerable health and would like some time to patch up the difficulties in their relationship.
Unfortunately, Katherine has no time for the emotions her illness is provoking in others. She has always put work first, and she’d rather live out the rest of her days as a mole in the Beethoven Archives than make amends to a daughter she has frowned upon for not following in her overachieving footsteps.
The play swings (fluidly if unsubtly) between the present and the early 19th century, a contrapuntal setup in which Katherine’s somber story parallels a lightly comic version of Beethoven’s. Pianist Diane Walsh accompanies the action, swooping into different parts of "Diabelli Variations" with the same panache that scenic designer Derek McLane and projection designer Jeff Sugg bring to their artful incorporation of sheet music into the overall production aesthetic.
Beethoven (a flamboyant madcap Zach Grenier) initially appears to have no interest in accepting the invitation sent out by music publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia) to the 50 greatest composers in Vienna to write a variation on his humble dance piece. But then for some reason the great master, whose hearing is rapidly dwindling and whose body and mind are in disrepair, decides to take up the task, writing not a single variation but a set of 33, to the mystery of his secretary and eventual biographer, Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas).
Katherine, imposing her customary haughtiness onto her subject, suspects Beethoven wanted to show the world that he could spin a masterwork from a mediocrity. But this hypothesis fails to convince Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann), the gatekeeper to Beethoven’s papers, who for all her brusque Germanic orderliness is actually more responsive to human undertones than this ruthlessly unsentimental visiting scholar.
As Katherine’s health falters, a worried Clara arrives for an extended visit with Mike (Greg Keller), a male nurse she met during a hospital visit with her mother in New York. The couple is roiling in low self-esteem issues (and, boy, do the actors let you know it), but a genuine affection flows between them — something Katherine’s uncompromising attitude has blocked in her own life.
Fonda may overplay Katherine’s crisp authoritarianism, and her Cosmo covergirl styling crazily suggests that musicologists have the same disposable income as Hollywood royalty. But she offers a moving, vanity-free depiction of her character’s physical descent. And the spiritual enlightenment that follows, bringing her all sorts of epiphanies into Beethoven’s work and the precious value of her daughter’s love, seems natural even when it has an all-too familiar dramatic inevitability.
The most haunting moment, tellingly enough, is one in which Fonda, unencumbered with Kaufman’s dialogue, is seen rather than heard. Katherine is undergoing a battery of medical tests, with flashing lights rendering this normally controlling woman utterly helpless. Stricken yet stoical, Fonda journeys with her character to a harrowing place before traveling further still to a land of humility and grace.
-- Charles McNulty
“33 Variations,” Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends March 6. $20 to $80 (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/33. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
Photos: Top: Samantha Mathis, Jane Fonda, Greg Keller. Bottom: Zach Grenier and Fonda. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.