Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Set the Night to Music

February 09, 2011

Jane Fonda and Samantha Mathis in 33 Variations
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

The Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles rarely hosts straight plays. On the occasions that it does, they tend to be imports from Broadway with big marquee stars. That tradition continues with the opening of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, a play most notable for the appearance of Jane Fonda in the lead role. She portrays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist studying one of the great mysteries of classical music, why Beethoven became preoccupied with a seemingly insignificant waltz composed by music publisher Anton Diabelli to the extent that the composer wrote a now canonical set of 33 variations of it for solo piano. It’s an example of one those intellectual or artistic mystery plots that populates such touchstone works as A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession or Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. But Kaufman doesn’t quite go as far as either of these works, instead choosing to wrap his rather mild mystery in a much more melodramatic context involving Dr. Brandt’s physical decline from ALS, the conflicted relationship with her daughter, and the pop psychological analysis of Dr. Brandt’s persona. Dr. Brandt travels to Bonn where she befriends an archivist who becomes her confidant during her illness. Life lessons are learned, laughs are had, and the emotions are pat and broadly expressed.

If you think this sounds like a TV movie, you’d be right. And the second half of the play is interminably slow and obvious despite the contributions from fine actors such as Samantha Mathis as Dr. Brandt’s daughter and Zach Grenier as Beethoven. The composer appears in the play in a narrative from the 19th century depicting the events surrounding his composition of the Diabelli Variations that are intercut with Dr. Brandt’s investigation of the same events. Of course, Beethoven’s own declining health at the time establishes painfully obvious parallels, but all of it is wrapped in some lovely set design by Derek McLane, which uses projected elements of Beethoven’s scores. Of course, the reason many will see this show is to catch a glimpse of Jane Fonda. She’s as great an actor here as in any other project you can think of that she’s done. If 33 Variations were a film, it would certainly be Oscar-bait considering she gets to play a woman who is progressively becoming more physically disabled over the course of two hours. I never once felt that I was looking at Jane Fonda during the performance and bought her performance in total.

But is she enough to justify seeing the whole play? Probably not. Even with live piano accompaniment from Diane Walsh who performs Beethoven’s music throughout the evening, 33 Variations isn’t ever pointed or funny enough to raise much sustained interest. While there is plenty raging against the dying of the light in this one, it still goes quietly to its end with too many dry eyes in the house. However, if you’re a big Fonda fan, you can’t go wrong here. And if it’s celebrity you want, the Ahmanson is currently delivering.



When I saw this play at the La Jolla Playhouse a few years ago, sans Jane Fonda, we all left the theatre with tears in our eyes.
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