Fonda Entrances in 33 Variations @ Ahmanson02/13/2011, Don Grigware, Broadway world
33 Variations written and directed by Moises Kaufman
through March 6
Moises Kaufman has created a hypnotic dramedy with music called 33 Variations, that spans two centuries. Parallel: in 1822, Composer Ludwig van Beethoven's (Zach Grenier) hearing was slowly deteriorating and in 2011, musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda) is physically deteriorating from the devastating effects of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) or Lou Gehrig's Disease: both struggle against time for the sake of art. Jutting back and forth in time, Kaufman's play exudes astounding compassion for the human condition.
Three stories dominate the play: Katherine's struggles to write a thesis on Beethoven's obsession with Anton Diabelli's (Don Amendolia) waltz and with her disease; Beethoven's struggles to compose the variations on The Commonplace waltz and against his hearing loss; and Katherine's daughter Clara's (Samantha Mathis) struggle to find her place in the world. Further complicating a bad relationship with her dying mother is that Clara is falling in love with her mother's male nurse, totally against Katherine's wishes. The action shifts from New York to Bonn, Germany in present time and to Vienna, Austria in the period of 1819-1823 in quick flashes which make it fascinating, almost breathtaking to watch. Some scenes without dialogue, such as Katherine being x-rayed while her thoughts and emotions run with Beethoven - they are sitting back to back - and others where the words are simply about putting the musical composition to paper and conducting it are indescribably exhilarating. There is much humor sprinkled throughout, especially from the nurse Mike Clark (Greg Keller) trying to make his moves on Clara, and in Beethoven's world where the composer, for example, becomes preoccupied with soup, whose stains adorn the pages of his musical sketches Katherine is examining almost two hundred years later. People are people in any age: they want pleasure, but fumble and somehow keep moving along against all odds. In the end Beethoven embellishes a waltz with 33 variations, Clara learns to care for and about her mother, and Katherine - whose lesson is perhaps the most painful - learns to let go and appreciate each moment as it happens before she, like Beethoven passes gloriously into eternity.
Fonda has never been more radiant, uplifting or translucent; her work is brilliant. Physically she is called upon to deteriorate in movement and speech, which she accomplishes quite well, but it is the emotional state and her control over its every facet that are most remarkable. Mathis is also natural and believable throughout, especially with her very subtle transformation. Clark and Grant James Varjas as Schindler, who acts as go-between with Beethoven and Diabelli, give wonderfully comical portrayals. On the serious side, Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, Katherine's German assistant in the research, gives an especially stunning performance as a woman of no-nonsense, who unwittingly gets caught up in the personal trauma. Grenier is enigmatic and fiery as Beethoven and Amendolia excellent as greedy composer/publisher Diabelli. Pianist/musical director Diane Walsh does splendidly with intermittent Beethoven accompaniment.
Suffice to say, the play is a miraculous achievement that will entertain you and make you think and feel life's precious moments. Music makes life worth living, and Beethoven's genius remains a gift. 33 Variations, like Jane Fonda herself, is a true inspiration.