Saturday, April 25, 2009

New York, Spring 2009 -- Day Nine "33 Variations"

The big news about "33 Variations," the new Moises Kaufman play at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, was the return to the Broadway stage (after a three decade absence) of Jane Fonda. Broadway seems to love it when big Hollywood stars return to the boards. They bring in new audiences and call attention to the world of legitimate theater, which mostly flies under the entertainment world radar.

Unfortunately, critics are rarely kind to the stars of the silver screen when they are there for the viewing night after night, in ordinary life-size proportion. Perhaps it's a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Once stars are there before our eyes in flesh and blood form, instead of gigantic representations in dancing light, perhaps something is lost in the minds of critics.

But this time around, Jane Fonda has bucked the trend and received mostly positive notices for her performance. Unfortunately, the play itself is coming under fire. I say unfortunate because I had a delightful evening. Not only was Jane terrific -- sincere, honest, displaying a wonderful, graceful physicality -- the play was compelling and entertaining, if occasionally a tad facile and predictable.

Fonda plays Dr. Catherine Brandt, a musicologist who has fallen ill but is obsessed with completing a final monograph before she dies. The subject of the paper is Beethoven's "33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli." Brandt has, after months of pleading, been given access to the Beethoven archives in Bonn, where she hopes to discover why Beethoven, in the last years of his life, spent so much time composing so many variations on such a simple, almost amateurish piece of dance music.

The scene shifts between the present day (incorporating the conflict between Brandt and her daughter, plus a budding relationship between the daughter and Brandt's nurse, Mike, and a friendship between Brandt and the scholar who oversees the archive and works closely with Brandt), and the early 19th century, where we see the imagined interaction between Beethoven, his assistant Shindler, and Anton Diabelli, Beethoven's publisher and -- for this project only -- collaborator/inspiration.

There's an intellectual mystery being solved here -- and like all mysteries, it takes a little attention. Dr. Brandt pores over the maestro's sketchbooks, even searching the "conversation books" used late in his life when he had gone completely deaf and visitors had to write their comments and questions to him. There's something compelling about watching a powerful mind attempt to solve a puzzle using only limited and ultimately inadequate evidence.

The bigger story, however, is not the search for the reason Beethoven chose to spend so much time on variations of what has been deemed an inconsequential piece of music, but the search for meaning in any life. Almost everyone in this play is obsessed: Catherine with solving the mystery, Beethoven with plumbing the depths of Diabelli's waltz, Diabelli with getting the variations published, Catherine's daughter with helping her mother deal with her illness, Mike with winning the daughter's love. Everyone, it seems, it caught up in the unsatisfying business of trying to explain the unexplainable or grasp the incomprehensible.

The mystery Catherine has taken on is really the ultimate mystery. As she says in the second act, "Beethoven exists in the silences." There is triple meaning to this, as she is referring first to the conversation books where only Beethoven's visitor's questions and comments were written out -- the maestro's replies were spoken and therefore lost to history. The second silence is the silence between notes; without it, music would not be music, but continuous noise, lacking rhythm, melody or dynamic range. But it's the third silence that is most important -- the silence of the void looming over both Beethoven and Catherine, both facing a too-imminent death.

Kaufman does a fascinating parallel to highlight the journey to silence: Beethoven is losing his hearing, Catherine her ability to speak. Too soon, both of these brilliant minds will be forced into a quiet neither desires -- but which may deliver unanticipated blessings. As they travel this hard, narrow path, Kaufman allows we in the audience to focus on our own search for the ineffable.

"33 Variations" is beautifully staged, well-acted, elegantly and efficiently directed, and well worth your time -- though you'll have to hurry, as Jane Fonda will be returning to the life of a movie star all too soon.

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