'33 Variations' Hits Some of the Right Notes but Fails to Resonate

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

NEW YORK -- Jane Fonda is 71. I'm trying to process this preposterous fact as I watch the actress, still svelte and radiant, portray a musicologist dying of a wasting disease in "33 Variations," the earnest new Broadway play about the inscrutable progress of illness and genius.

Fonda's agelessness owes something to both the longevity of her fame and the intensity of her struggle against physical decline. (No one did more for the workout -- or a leotard -- than Jane Fonda.) On this occasion, she not only manages to transcend time, but also the material. For "33 Variations," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, marks a pleasing Broadway return for Fonda, even if it's little more than a handsomely annotated music lesson.

The piece, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman ("The Laramie Project"), started life two years ago at Arena Stage, where it lacked a star of Fonda's wattage, but generated about the same low-grade level of electricity. Many aspects of the Arena incarnation have made it to Broadway, including several supporting players and the impressive, archivist's dream of a set by Derek McLane.

It's too bad that what's also been carried over is a sense that "33 Variations" is the mere outline for a deeper work. Kaufman, whose best play remains his early, scrupulously documented "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," seeks to illuminate parallels between a 19th-century composer's quest to advance his art and a contemporary woman's ordeal with a terminal malady. Each, he suggests, is a poignantly solitary battle, a "procession into unknown territory."

But the characters' intersections across time feel no more emotionally urgent than if they had been plotted on a spreadsheet. The play unfolds around Fonda's dying Katherine, a Beethoven expert who travels to Bonn for her final academic paper. She's trying to unlock a mystery: why Beethoven devoted so much of his waning energies to composing more than 30 variations on a pedestrian waltz by a Viennese music publisher, Anton Diabelli.

McLane's set is a kind of tribute to Kaufman's own love of research. Four movable screens made up of musical sheet paper are rolled around a stage framed by files stacked high -- the boxes containing Beethoven's handwritten compositions in progress. The flimsy screens function as if they were a permeable layer between epochs, because the play travels from Katherine's world to that of Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and back again.

In this way, we are supposed to discover all sorts of connections between the scholar and her quarry, including the manner in which each keeps the world at arm's length. The gruff, selfish Beethoven needlessly bullies his assistant (Erik Steele) and deceives Diabelli (Don Amendolia). Katherine, meanwhile, reinforces the insecurity of her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) by harping on her failure to vigorously pursue an important career. It's as if Katherine expects Clara somehow to be like the geniuses Katherine studies. As a German librarian (Susan Kellermann) who befriends her says, Katherine seems to treat Clara as if she were "a second-rate waltz."

Into the mix Kaufman gives us a pianist (Diane Walsh) whose playing of the variations keeps time with the deterioration of both Katherine and Beethoven. Walsh's fine accompaniment is particularly well used in a sequence in the archives in Bonn, where Kellermann's Gertrude explains, with the aid of Jeff Sugg's excellent projections, how the composer painstakingly wrote out his compositions. At that moment, you could be sitting happily in the lecture hall of your favorite professor, the one who keeps the audiovisual department hopping.

Such intelligently orchestrated interludes bump up against far clunkier scenes in which, for example, characters echo one another's thoughts across time, or when, in her exhaustion, Katherine rests her head against the back of the equally spent Beethoven. (Kaufman also concocts a suitor for Clara, a nurse of sweet, saintly countenance named Mike, who's played so winningly by Colin Hanks that he makes you a fervent ally in his romantic pursuit.)

Grenier is suitably disagreeable as Beethoven, but why are visionary composers always portrayed as brats? For her part, Mathis succeeds in conferring a likable sincerity on a rather thankless role.

Through it all, too, Fonda bears up admirably. Although you don't quite buy her as the kind of pedagogue who lives vibrantly in her head, she finds lovely ways to muffle her own allure under the frail blanket of Katherine's infirmity. Her descent into incapacitation is as close as the play comes to a evoking a loss you can grieve for.

But not quite. "33 Variations" so busily tries to impress you with its civility and erudition that it neglects to make you care.

33 Variations, written and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, David Lander; sound, André J. Pluess; choreography, Daniel Pelzig. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through May 24 at Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St., New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com.

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