Monday, April 13, 2009

Theater review: Fonda adds magnetism to '33 Variations'

Jane Fonda in Moises Kaufman's 33 Variations.

By Hap Erstein

Editor's note: This is one of several reviews ArtsPaper theater critic Hap Erstein will provide in the coming weeks about the current New York theater season.

NEW YORK -- Moises Kaufman is a playwright and director of such intelligent works as Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project.

He is up to similar cerebral tricks with 33 Variations, a mystery tale about a terminally ill music historian racing the clock to understand what motivated Ludwig van Beethoven to write so many musical responses to a mundane waltz by the minor 19th-century composer and publisher Anton Diabelli.

The play is not without its merits -- and shortcomings -- but the script is not why theatergoers are flocking to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre these days. 33 Variations has been turned into an Event by the casting of two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda as the fictional Dr. Katherine Brandt.

At 71, Fonda has not been on a Broadway stage for 46 years, and one has to admire the effort she is making to do a play like this one, when she could far more easily -- and lucratively -- have made, say, Monster-in-Law 2 instead.

Dr. Brandt suffers from ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which places a literal deadline on her academic hunt. It gives her search for the reasons why Beethoven spent his final years composing these variations an added poignancy and it draws parallels between her life and the artist to whom she devoted her career.

Even if you have never heard Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, it is easy to be drawn into the puzzle of their creation. It is as if -- to use a famous theatrical reference point -- Mozart had gained a fascination for Salieri’s second-rate work and began dashing off musical hommages to them.

Despite her increasing immobility, Dr. Brandt flies to Bonn, Germany, to examine Beethoven’s manuscripts, while the play flies back and forth in time to the early 1800s, to Beethoven and his crabby whims.

Had this been Kaufman’s focus, he might have a more satisfying evening of theater, but unfortunately, he also wants us to become involved with Dr. Brandt’s personal life, with her strained relationship with her difficult daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), who is cautiously falling in love with her mother’s male nurse (Colin Hanks).

But there is a soap-opera quality to this side of the play, which is simply less interesting that the musical detective story. Every time the scene shifts back to the young lovers, even with Fonda’s interaction with them, 33 Variations loses its hold on us.

Still, that is Fonda up there, demonstrating the magnetism of stardom that has served her so well in Hollywood. The role of Dr. Brandt needs someone who is instantly compelling, for the character is cold and clinical, with little inherent appeal. Surely Kaufman intends us to become emotionally involved in her medical plight, but the play remains a head trip, rather than worming its way into the audience’s heart.

Hanks, who is starting to establish a film career of some note (The Great Buck Howard), has a fairly thankless supporting role here, though there are glimmers of the family genes in his genial performance. Better is Susan Kellerman as a gradually more compassionate German archivist, and musical director/pianist Diane Walsh accompanies the play with selections from the title composition.

Set designer Derek McLane embellishes the play’s themes by placing the action in close proximity to the sheet music, with mobile screens of manuscript paper upon which the variations are projected. It is a visually stunning effect, but one could well imagine future productions on a nearly bare stage.

In the same way, 33 Variations will surely be seen again elsewhere without Fonda’s involvement, which is bound to change the theatrical dynamic and the expectation level.

33 VARIATIONS, Eugene O’Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Continuing through May 24. Tickets: $67-$117. Call: (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.

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