Jane Fonda, is that really you? How long has it been since we've last caught up on Broadway? Forty-six years? You look great! And your character has a fatal illness? No way!
There are quite a few issues with "33 Variations," written and directed by Moisés Kaufman. 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. Her Katherine just doesn't like taking orders, even from death.
Katherine is a musicologist obsessed with figuring out why Beethoven came up with 33 different variations of a minute-long waltz by Anton Diabelli. The action toggles back and forth between Katherine's research - and her physical degradation - in the Beethoven archive in Bonn, Germany, and the increasingly deaf composer's creation of the Diabelli Variations. The budding relationship between Katherine's daughter (Samantha Mathis) and nurse (Colin Hanks) provides welcome levity.
Fonda's seemingly congenital inability to suggest weakness undermines both her character and the play's dynamics. We are very far from the emotional and intellectual punch of "Wit," in which Kathleen Chalfant memorably bared body and soul as a John Donne expert dying of cancer.
But the star also struggles to suggest, in the beginning, that obsession can create its own thrills. This leads to a deep imbalance onstage because Zach Grenier isn't afraid to go over the top as an entertaining, somewhat hammy Beethoven.
When he fervidly guides us through Variation No. 32 (with help from pianist Diane Walsh, providing live accompaniment from the side of the stage), it's the only time in which the "transfiguration" Katherine wonders about, the movement "from the banal to the exalted," is articulated in purely theatrical terms.
Mostly, however, there's talk, talk and more talk, with occasional snatches of music. The author of fact-based works like "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency," Kaufman regurgitates his considerable research in artless chunks.
And it often feels as if he didn't trust his premise's innate pull: The friction between Katherine and her daughter, for instance, seems little more than a forced attempt to create more drama.
The piece is quite effective when Kaufman-the-director takes over for Kaufman-the-writer: when Fonda shows a glimpse of fear as Katherine submits to strobe-like X-rays, or when Mathis silently suggests apprehension and sorrow, arms folded and shoulders hunched. Derek McLane's library boxes, stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves, also make a powerful statement, simultaneously suggesting claustrophobia and the joy of discovery.
As her body inexorably degenerates, Katherine asks herself, "How does one begin to let go?" If Kaufman and Fonda truly addressed this question, "33 Variations" could live up to its considerable potential.
It’s a fine line between brittle and breakable. Jane Fonda blurs that distinction to memorable effect in “33 Variations,” the new drama written and directed by Moisés Kaufman that opened on Monday night at the Eugene O’Neill Theater. Playing a sharp-witted, terminally ill musicologist confronting the betrayal of her body, Ms. Fonda exudes an aura of beleaguered briskness that flirts poignantly with the ghost of her spiky, confrontational screen presence as a young woman.
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. Still, I’m willing to forgive a fair amount in a production that returns Ms. Fonda with such gallantry to the Broadway stage after an absence of 46 years.
Ms. Fonda, 71, is surely nervous about performing for a live audience after decades of working mostly in front of cameras, followed by years of semiretirement from acting. After all, younger stars of comparable renown have sputtered and flamed out on Broadway in recent years. But it is to Ms. Fonda’s advantage that she is playing someone who, used to being in unconditional charge of her life, is suddenly faced with the prospect of losing control.
Whatever discomfort the actress may feel melds into her portrayal of Dr. Katherine Brandt, whose naturally assertive nature is humbled by the progressive, atrophying illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Ms. Fonda became one of the great film actresses of her generation playing characters with the defense systems of a porcupine — all quivering, lancing quills — in films like “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969) and “Klute” (1971).
In “33 Variations,” Katherine is being ruthlessly denuded of her defenses, and for those who grew up enthralled with Ms. Fonda’s screen image, it’s hard not to respond to her performance here, on some level, as a personal memento mori.
Given the resonance of its star’s presence — and a plot that sets a fraught mother-daughter relationship to late music by Beethoven — “33 Variations” should be more moving as a whole than it is. Mr. Kaufman evidently hoped to create a sort of cultural-metaphysical detective story, somewhere between the biographical psychodrama of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” and the time-traveling, serious playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.”
But here Mr. Kaufman lacks the brazen theatrical flair of Mr. Shaffer and the cerebral deftness of Mr. Stoppard, offering instead much canned sentimental dialogue about self-knowledge and self-acceptance. For a show about transcendence through music, “33 Variations” can often feel oddly tone-deaf.
The play takes its shape from Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations, a piano work that riffs daringly and expansively on a seemingly pedestrian waltz written by the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. Katherine, who has recently received the diagnosis of the disease that will kill her, is determined to discover what inspired Beethoven to devote so much of his talent late in life to a piece he at first dismissed as “a cobbler’s patch.”
The play — which features a handsome, multipurpose archives-of-the-mind set by Derek McLane — moves between past and present, as Katherine pursues her sleuthing among a collection of manuscripts in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany.
Scenes showing the contentious personal and professional relationships in her life are presented in counterpoint with vignettes in which Beethoven (Zach Grenier, who looks just like those faux-marble busts on pianos) struggles in grand genius style with his failing health, his deafness, his poverty and his music. Throughout we hear relevant fragments of the variations, expertly performed on the piano by Diane Walsh, who does admirable double duty as the show’s musical director.
Mr. Kaufman’s script impressively and unobtrusively makes musicology accessible to the uninitiated without professorial condescension. Intellectually, the parallels between past and present — as well as the parallel courses of Katherine’s academic and personal paths to knowledge — make sense. But you only rarely feel the essential organic connection among these elements.
Part of the problem is that for someone who has supposedly spent years in deep study of Beethoven, Katherine comes across as a rather unsophisticated scholar. (“I didn’t know he loved soup,” she says to Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the woman who oversees the Beethoven archives, played with appealing robustness by Susan Kellermann.)
And in examining rare sketches and conversation books by Beethoven, Ms. Fonda’s Katherine seems more polite than passionate. This is one instance in which the cinematic restraint of Ms. Fonda’s performance works against her. It’s hard to credit the words Katherine remembers her 7-year-old daughter saying to her: “When you listen to music, Mom, you look like you’re talking to God.”
Original dialogue is not the strong suit of Mr. Kaufman, whose best-known previous work has mostly involved the artful arrangement of transcribed interviews (in “The Laramie Project,” about the impact of the murder of Matthew Shepard) and archival material (in the superb “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”). It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the scenes with Beethoven, his much put-upon secretary (Erik Steele) and Diabelli (Don Amendolia) feel (marginally) less clunky than many of the contemporary scenes.
The script is particularly grating in portraying the emotional thawing of Katherine and her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), who has serious commitment issues, both professionally and personally. (Clara to Katherine: “I finally see how you see me, Mom. And it’s horrible.” Gertrude to Katherine, about Clara: “She sees her mother. It’s you who cannot see your daughter.”) And the sequences showing the courtship of Clara by Mike Clark (the charming Colin Hanks) are as stale as 1950s B-movie romance.
While Mr. Kaufman is to be commended for holding back on the schmaltz in his use of Beethoven’s music, there are remarkably few cases of that music’s stirring your heart here. The most affecting of these moments find Mr. Grenier’s Beethoven working through the composition of Variation 32 amid much psycho-sturm und drang and, especially, a hospital sequence in which the “Kyrie eleison” is heard.
Ms. Fonda herself sings in that scene, in a voice that is heartbreaking in its reedy frailness. By then, Katherine’s illness has advanced to the point where her tongue twitches, and she cannot feed herself.
Yet as Ms. Fonda plays her, you still sense the rigidity of Katherine’s will. Her elegantly restrained rendering of a struggle between fierce human consciousness and mortal decay comes close to matching “the notes ascending — a rising promise” that Katherine says she hears in Beethoven’s music.
It's fitting, in a way, that 33 Variations (* * ½ out of four) opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on Monday, less than a week after Horton Foote died at 92. Foote, whose own new play Dividing the Estate arrived on Broadway this season to wide acclaim, reminded us that even as the body succumbs to the ravages of age, the heart and mind can remain vital.
That bittersweet irony is central to Variations, which otherwise inspires few comparisons to the gently wry and unsentimental Foote. Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, it stars the famously fit Jane Fonda, who clearly knows a thing or two about defying mortality, or at least gravity. Fonda plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist intent on figuring out why Beethoven, toward the end of his life, obsessively wrote variations on what Brandt deems "a mediocre waltz," the work of a music publisher with artistic aspirations.
Katherine has a more daunting conundrum, though: She has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the same incurable disease that felled baseball legend Lou Gehrig. Faced with her own physical deterioration and death, Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany, and throws herself into her research with as much feverish intensity as Beethoven devoted to his project.
If the parallels aren't obvious enough, Kaufman shifts from present to past, making Beethoven a character in the play. Portrayed artfully, if bombastically, by Zach Grenier, he is a cranky, disheveled genius, a less elegant but more dazzling manifestation of Katherine's intellectual energy and drive.
But wait, there's more: Katherine has a daughter, Clara, who disapproves of Mom's cavalier attitude about her illness, just as Katherine disapproves of Clara's inability to settle on a profession or find a man who will "challenge" her. Scenes featuring Katherine, Clara and Clara's new boyfriend, Mike (a nurse, conveniently), are interwoven with scenes featuring Beethoven, his long-suffering assistant and the aforementioned publisher. Kaufman also assembles the characters together and has them speak the same or similar words over each other. At one point, they all break into song.
What elevates this above a Lifetime TV movie musical (there is piano accompaniment, by Diane Walsh) is Kaufman's vigorous guidance of a fine ensemble. 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.
Samantha Mathis lends her usual unfussy intelligence to Clara, while Colin Hanks makes a thoroughly winning Broadway debut as Mike. If his natural, likable presence makes comparisons with dad Tom unavoidable, that should be his biggest problem. Susan Kellermann gamely fills the stock role of the heroine's droll colleague and confidante, a German scholar whose stern voice belies a playful side.
Their performances, along with some glorious music, make 33 Variations engaging in spite of its contrivances.
It's been 46 years since Jane Fonda's last role on Broadway but there's no sign of rustiness in the cool command she brings to "33 Variations." Fonda certainly knows her way around characters like musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, an impassioned woman hungry for knowledge and reluctant to concede her weaknesses. Playing an emotionally distant parent who finds closeness with her daughter only at the end of her life, the iconic star's work here is also illuminated by personal history, mirroring her own famously troubled relationship with her father. If Moises Kaufman's elegant production outshines his schematic play, Fonda nonetheless distinguishes it with integrity and class.
After two false starts to her career comeback with forgettable Hollywood movies, "Monster-in-Law" and "Georgia Rule," Fonda is in more rewarding territory with this snug-fitting role, which echoes the staunch determination and strong-willed independence of many of her screen characters. Watching the conflicting forces of fear and pride do battle across her handsomely aged face as Katherine steadily succumbs to the ravages of Lou Gehrig's Disease, it's perhaps inevitable that both Fonda's on- and offscreen personae inform the experience.
A sort-of "Wit"-meets-"Amadeus," the play is a race against time, in which Katherine struggles to complete an important monograph before her body gives out. The subject is Beethoven's 33 variations on an undistinguished waltz by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli. Acting against the advice of concerned daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis), Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany, to conduct research, determined to discover what drove the great composer to devote years of failing health and approaching deafness to riff on a seemingly inconsequential musical trifle.
Those twin, time-challenged obsessions -- Katherine's to unravel the mystery and Beethoven's to complete the mushrooming task he set himself -- are explored with symmetry that's a little too neat and tidy, reverberating through the play as snatches of identical dialogue are heard across the world and the centuries.
Kaufman up to now has been best known as an assembly-man playwright, distilling interviews and transcripts through his Tectonic Theater Project into collaborative pieces like "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde." He brings the same patchwork method to this more conventional dual narrative, stuffing research and a daunting load of exposition into an uneven package that has fascinating insights into the creation and appreciation of music, juxtaposed with sometimes hackneyed melodrama.
The setup is promising and the shifting between the early 19th century and the present remarkably fluid. Fonda injects dry humor into her interaction with history as the irascible Beethoven (Zach Grenier), his fawning, over-protective assistant Schindler (Erik Steele) and portly Diabelli (Don Amendolia) materialize onstage.
But the parallels of two resilient creative minds betrayed by the failure of the body become increasingly belabored. And Kaufman only fully succeeds in identifying his key theme -- about the haste of life blinding us to the beauty and grace of individual moments -- in a final summation.
The romantic subplot is especially pedestrian, despite the actors' best efforts. Mathis as Clara and Colin Hanks as Katherine's nurse and her daughter's boyfriend both bring charm and sensitivity to their parts. She's more dutiful than warm toward her mother, clearly bruised by a lifetime of being kept at arm's length; he's a personable nerd, his softness and humor tempering the more brittle edges of the two women.
But the dialogue in the young characters' scenes could use a polish, from the preciousness of their his-and-hers inner voices during their first date to some cringe-inducing moments in their later intimate exchanges. "I just want to feel healthy," says Clara after instigating sex, picking up a theme from a few scenes earlier, in which the benefits for Katherine of physical contact are discussed. Repetition is an essential part of any variation and Kaufman has structured the play to echo that musical form, but too often the writer doesn't trust the audience to find the recurring motifs unassisted.
However, in addition to the restraint and subtlety of Fonda's performance, there are compensations. The gradual bridging of the gap between mother and daughter is delicately traced, as Katherine deals with her fear that Clara's creative restlessness will yield a life of mediocrity. And the musicologist's growing friendship with Gertrude (Susan Kellermann), the initially frosty German scholar who controls the vast archive of Beethoven's compositional sketches and personal papers, also is satisfyingly drawn, illustrating that emotional detachment can facilitate communication.
Transfiguration in both life and art is a constant refrain, but it's in his elucidation of the music that Kaufman elevates the play to another level. With pianist Diane Walsh playing excerpts or entire passages from the Diabelli Variations, breaking down intricate phrases to show us the patterns behind them, we share directly in the exaltation of Beethoven's artistry and Katherine's discoveries. And while Grenier's Beethoven veers toward cartoonishness in his volatile rants, he's transporting as he verbalizes the creation of the powerful fugue variation No. 32, bathed in golden light and accompanied by Walsh's nimble playing.
There's perhaps a couple too many mannered directorial flourishes, but overall this is an impeccably honed production, its fine cast backed by exquisite visuals. David Lander's mercurial lighting and Jeff Sugg's artful projections blend seamlessly with Derek McLane's striking, modern designs, dominated by endless filing drawers and by waltzing walls of sheet music.
One image in particular lingers in the head, of Katherine exhausted after an X-ray, leaning back for support on Beethoven's cloaked shoulder in a moving union of pain shared across time.