33 Variations

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Editorial Review

High-Toned '33' Proves An Affair Of the Head

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

In "33 Variations," playwright-director Mois├ęs Kaufman tries to answer a question that probably never occurred to you to ask: Why would Beethoven devote himself to the seemingly unworthy task of composing dozens of variations on an inferior waltz by a mediocre contemporary?

That esoteric inquiry provides a platform for Kaufman to chew on all manner of philosophical grist, from the nature of reconciliation in the face of terminal illness, to the limits that time places on all degrees of human capability -- even on genius. It also allows him to turn Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater into a kind of classroom of the senses, in which an audience gets swept up in some of the more absorbing aspects of a musicologist's work.

Ultimately, though, "33 Variations" cannot quite make a wholly successful pivot from concerns of the head to those of the heart. It certainly strives to make that leap, through the story of a modern-day Beethoven expert who must learn to embrace her loved ones with as indulgent a spirit as she summons for the subjects of her research.

But the intellectual dots that Kaufman seeks to connect -- regarding Beethoven's penchant for writing variation upon variation to a waltz by an Austrian publisher, when only one was solicited -- don't achieve the emotional resonance one finds in, say, the cerebral plays of Tom Stoppard (whom Kaufman at times appears to be channeling). Kaufman never permits us to fully appreciate why this issue so consumes him. That he resorts to a final lecture to sum up the play suggests he doesn't trust us to come up with an answer ourselves.

Nevertheless, in this world premiere, Kaufman, author of the highly regarded "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" and director of the Pulitzer-winning "I Am My Own Wife," does make the stage an exquisite teaching tool, and for that you're content to spend time under his tutelage. Aided by the sterling set designer Derek McLane, projection designer Jeff Sugg and pianist Diane Walsh -- whose playing of the variations keeps pace with the progress of the story -- Kaufman manages to evoke in engrossing ways the processes by which one mind creates and another deconstructs the creation.

This is eloquently apparent in an early scene, when a Beethoven scholar played by Mary Beth Peil arrives at the archives in Bonn, Germany, where the composer's sketchbooks are preserved. As the proper archives librarian (a terrifically deadpan Susan Kellermann) turns to a sketchbook and explains how Beethoven composed Variation No. 12, a projection of the page on the wall behind her illuminates the phrase she describes. Next, an infrared version is projected, to reveal how Beethoven went over in ink the notes he liked. And when at last Walsh plays the musical phrase, and the librarian declares, "You are hearing an original composition of Beethoven never before heard, except by the people who've read this book," an audience shares in the intimate exhilaration of discovery.

Moments of that kind of intensity are harder to come by in the subplots that Kaufman dreams up -- his own variations, if you will -- for this tale of scholarly investigation. "33 Variations" takes place in the life of Peil's Katherine, a renowned musicologist who's "taught whole generations of students how to listen to classical music," as well as in the composer's final years, as Beethoven (Graeme Malcolm) struggles with advancing deafness and the physically trying effort to complete his oeuvre.

The fictional Katherine is given a parallel struggle with a wasting disease, and so her effort to finish her research on Beethoven's Variations is a race against time. Yet while the confounding focus of the composer's life is his art, Katherine's greatest challenge is not in completing her final monograph, but in coming to terms with daughter Clara (Laura Odeh), a disappointment to her because she lacks the mother's discipline and ambition. As Kellermann's Gertie astutely notes, Katherine views her daughter as "a second-rate waltz." Clara, it seems, is indeed the variation Katherine has the most trouble trying to crack.

Odeh immerses Clara in an endearing pool of resignation. She conveys the idea that Clara knows who she is, and is not resentful of the fate to which she has been consigned: to walk in her mother's shadow. What gives Clara dignity is her ability to recognize goodness in others, particularly the valiant Mike (a superb Greg Keller), a nurse who treats Katherine and later asks Clara out. At the funny date that ensues, both Odeh and Keller beautifully underplay the awkward events surrounding an attempt at a first romantic move.

The story of Clara and Mike proves to be the evening's most appealing.

Malcolm is suitably bombastic as the ego-driven Beethoven, and Peil admirably invests her Katherine with the aloofness of one who experiences life from the brain stem up. Neither of them, though, is a galvanizing creation.

Kaufman's efforts, too, to find synergy in the plights of Katherine and Beethoven feel overly artificial, as when he has Peil nestle for comfort across time in the nape of Malcolm's neck. The strains are evident, too, in some of the author's hoarier conceits, such as posing all the characters on the stage and having them echo each other's lines.

Consequently, when Kaufman gathers them all up at play's end for the kind of reverie that usually concludes a Shakespearean comedy, the moment does not feel quite earned. For all of the playwright-director's gallant effort, there might be a lump in your throat. But only a little one.