Moisés Kaufman first achieved fame as the artistic director of the Tectonic Theatre Company, with whom he collaborated on The Laramie Project, their ethnographically- based treatment of Laramie, Wyoming, in the aftermath of Matthew Shepard’s death at the hands of two local gay-bashing murderers. Tectonic’s first production was Indecent Exposure, which used a similar pastiche process to knit together various archival sources to offer a sympathetic, Brechtian rendition of the trials of Oscar Wilde. The company’s non-narrative, fragmented style suited their investigations into historical events of questionable morality and ethics, representing a theatrical refusal to take sides while still giving fraught proceedings the benefit of searing examination in performance.
In his solo outing as a playwright, Kaufman’s 33 Variations (on Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill, in a production I saw 5-9-09) narrates a somewhat different inquiry into history. Using a more conventional structure and style, the play centers on Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), a musicologist studying a minor project by Beethoven in which he obsessively wrote 33 different variations on a simple theme provided by an amateur colleague. In her effort to understand the root of Beethoven’s enduring fascination with the piece, Katherine comes to terms with her own desire to know and her own obsession with work at the expense of intimacy and family life.
The play falls squarely into the tradition of Wit and Third, plays in which smart women are punished for prizing their intellect over more traditionally gendered skills like nurturing. In the more brutal Wit, the female protagonist is a Donne scholar, an exacting teacher who’s isolated herself so that as she lies dying, only her own academic mentor comes to visit. Her death seems retribution for her life choices, even though the playwright, Margaret Edison, metaphorically describes the end of her life as a liberating release.
In 33 Variations, too, a talented female scholar has intimacy issues, and is propelled through the plot by her urgency to solve her research challenges before she’s overtaken by ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), the degenerate illness that will soon immobilize her body while it leaves her mind intact. Racing against a timetable that gives her a clear handicap, Katherine travels to Bonn to conduct her archival research against the wishes of her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), and her doctors, insistent that she’s strong enough to see the trip through. Her journey toward understanding Beethoven’s motivations—since, as she notes, “History doesn’t record what he said”—also marks her own progress toward ill health, in vignettes titled with projected numbers that count off the variations. When the play reaches 33, Katherine’s life has nearly ended.
Kaufman’s conceit presents the past and present simultaneously. Katherine toils in the archive alongside her German colleague, Dr. Gertrude Landenburger (Susan Kellermann), the taciturn, gruff woman who guards Beethoven’s boxes with the fascist fist of archivists the world over. While the two women gradually come to trust and even care for one another, the play intercuts scenes among Beethoven (Zach Grenier) and his assistant, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), negotiating with Diabelli, who wants to include Beethoven’s variation on his theme in a collection he plans to publish. Diabelli (Don Amendolia) swings between frustration and pleasure at Beethoven’s delay, his ego flattered by the master’s attention to his trifle. As Beethoven grows increasingly deaf—his own historical decline mirroring Katherine’s in the present—the variations take on more weight and import than they might have earlier in his life. Grenier–nominated for a Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Play–does a nice job impersonating a mad artist, and Steele is appropriately protective and self-righteous as his helper.
As Katherine’s health deteriorates, she refuses to return to the States, so Clara and her boyfriend, Mike (Colin Hanks—as in Tom’s son—who’s ingenuous and charming), join the scholar in Bonn. Katherine stumbles toward achieving historical understanding; she finds her tentative way toward a limited kind of intimacy with her daughter and Gertie, whom she finally claims as a friend (after at first demurring that the other woman is merely a “kind acquaintance”); and she comes to terms with her immanent death from an “orphan disease” that afflicts too few people to make it worth the research required to find a cure. The irony, of course, is that Katherine tracks an obscure reference in Beethoven’s oeuvre as her life’s work, while scientists can’t be bothered (or can’t be funded) to find an antidote to save her life.
Nothing much more than that happens in 33 Variations, but the production is replete with small pleasures that make it a worthy experience. The set recalls the vertically stacked wooden boxes that composed the décor for I am My Own Wife, a play about similar reconstructions and memory. Derek McLane, who designed the set for Wife and 33 Variations, riffs on the archive theme again here (and received a Tony nomination for his work), with acid-free boxes neatly laddered atop one another in rows that move up and down and side to side, like the portable, space-saving stacks in some libraries. These three-dimensional representations of a scholar’s labor, however, are far from dusty and untouched, as they were in Wife.They’re luminously lit (by designer David Lander, also Tony nominated), with light that graces them like treasures.
The other visual theme of the impressive but simple set appears on rolling racks, from which sheets of music hang in neat rows, overlaid at various moments with projections of music staffs and the graphic announcements of the numbers of ever accumulating variations and scenes. These moving racks and flying archives allow the set to transform across time and locale; the few set pieces or props—a high desk here, a piece of luggage or a backpack there—become iconic, but leave Kaufman (who also directed) plenty of room to shift his actors and to focus attention on the interactions that form the play’s emotional core. The production moves fluidly and gracefully, its naturalistic acting unimpeded by spectacle or technology, and offers the audience a visually rich but essentially unmediated engagement with its characters.
33 Variations’ other pleasures come from its cast and their beautifully understated acting. Fonda turns in a surprisingly sure, moving performance, appearing to empathize enormously with Katherine and her pursuits while understanding her emotional reticence and occasional coldness as the price of being a woman in a man’s field. Her friendship with Gertie blooms like a rose unfolding in slow motion, as the two women come to trust and admire one another and let down their mutual defenses. Watching two female scholars enjoy their research together, and one another’s company, is a pleasure seldom afforded by a Broadway production. Fonda and Kellermann make the most of their scenes, establishing warmth that’s all the more real for being so muted and taciturn.
As Katherine’s health fails, she becomes more fragile, but Fonda keeps her strong, never pitying the character or deploring her situation. Although the woman who began the aerobics craze in the 1980s is now 71, Fonda’s perfect posture and physical self-confidence make her a presence with which to reckon on stage.Yet her performance isn’t showy; she doesn’t come off as a diva enjoying the adoring attention of rapt fans.Instead, her Tony Award-nominated performance delivers the emotional complexities of a woman who’s chosen her intellect over intimacy without a moment’s regret.
Kaufman’s production—in its words and its images—honors Katherine and the idea of a woman like her, respecting her strength, her choices, and her determination without romanticizing or infantilizing her. In some ways, in fact, Katherine is perfectly ordinary, a woman whose work takes her burrowing deep into the past to look for arcane bits of information which, when she finds them, bring little pieces of the puzzle of knowledge and life clicking into place. No more, no less; but in this production–appropriately nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play–that’s plenty.
The Feminist Spectator