33 Variations is a new play by Moisés Kaufman, the man who brought us The Laramie Project. Now, 33 Variations is more of standard well-made play, whereas Laramie is more of a theatre-documentary of sorts, made up of soundbites Kaufman collected when he visited the town where Matthew Shepard was murdered.
Starring the formidable (and totally hot, still) Jane Fonda, Kaufman's new play tells the story of Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist with a specialization on Beethoven, who is dying of Lou Gerig's disease.
Fonda as Barbarella; Fonda, present day: still hot.
Dr. Brandt is obsessed with Beethoven's interpretation of Diabelli's waltz. When asked to write one variation on the piece, Beethoven ends up writing an astounding thirty-three separate variations. And, if he'd had this way, and his health, he most likely would have written more. What was it about he waltz that obsessed him so? And why was he so determined to finish the variations when he was dying, and had more pressing compositions like The Requiem and the Ninth Symphony to consider?
Fonda is, unbelievably, 72 years old, and her presence at the beginning of the play seems to suggest a very, very young fifty. To cast Fonda in a role that calls for the character's severe physical degeneration only highlights the total and utter devastation of this illness. As a professor, it is most heartbreaking when Dr. Brandt points out to her research companion, that her tongue has stopped working. Communication, in this play, in life, is everything.
But then there's the art, and the music. She travels to Germany against the advice of her doctor's nurse, played by Colin Hanks, who, predictably, falls in love with Dr. Brandt's hardened, worthless daughter, played by Samantha Mathis. Mathis, a washed-up movie star from the early nineties, should have promise. But as I watched her in the play, I realized this is something I'd been saying her entire career. Honestly, Mathis cannot act. She is not an actress, and her failure in this role really damages the mother-daughter tension in the play.
Overall, this play is entertaining, and heartfelt. But let's get real here, Kaufman. You've basically just written another version of W;t, and inserted Beethoven for John Donne . . . hence the semi-colon in its title. (W;t tells the story of a John Donne scholar, also a mature, formidable lady, dying of ovarian cancer). I suppose, if I hadn't seen W;t, I would think 33 Variations a damn good piece of work. But the fact of the matter is, I have seen it, and dammit Kaufman, you've just borrowed a bit too much. Unfortunately for you, Margaret Edson is smarter than you, and she's written a better play.
33 Variations surely has its moments. The set design is beautiful, and in one moment, during an x-Ray, Dr. Brandt leans back in exhaustion to find herself leaning against Beethoven himself.
Yes, he's in the play. For the most part, it works. Occasionally, it's annoying. W;it doesn't engage in these sort of shenanigans, and without comic relief, it can become totally depressing. But there, I've said it: 33 Variations isn't very original.
That said, it's still worth seeing for Fonda's performance. She has completely committed to this character, physically and emotionally, and to watch an actor like Fonda at the top of her game at her age is like watching an aging all-star athlete beat the hopeful young underdog. There's certainly something inspirational about this, and Dr. Brandt's final monologue, which reminds us that the whole point of a variation is to pick apart a theme, to see where each route leads, is the whole point of living. That it's about each moment. The details.
For us healthy people, this remains a very important message.