Volume 78 - Number 41 / March 18 -24, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


THEATER

33 Variations
Written & Directed by Moisés KaufmanEugene O’Neill Theatre
239 West 49th Street
212-239-6200

Beethoven & Kaufman: Six Degrees, 33 Variations
Playwright & composer create masterworks from a grain of sand

By JERRY TALLMER

In history-rich Bonn, Germany, the voluminous archives of native son Ludwig Van Beethoven — letters, diaries, manuscripts, ledgers, payments, receipts, and above all, miles and miles of scribbled over sheet music — are sternly kept under lock and key in the Beethoven-haus.

It was here that Moisés Kaufman, founder and artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project, spent endless hours under the vigilant eyes of the keepers of the flame, trying — in synch with the principal character in a play he would write — to dig out the reasons why deaf old Ludwig spent four years late in life composing 33 extraordinary variations on a tiny scrap of music, a banal beerhouse waltz that Beethoven had no use for to begin with.

“I went to Bonn and did what Katharine Grant does in the play,” playwright and director Kaufman said. “I became a musicologist for that one piece of music” — Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a theme by Anton Diabelli.

Katharine Grant, the musicologist Kaufman invented, happens to have a date with death, in counterpoint with Beethoven, though by way of a slow killer unknown in that great composer’s time — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, the Lou Gehrig disease.

The actress who portrays Dr. Grant in “33 Variations” at Broadway’s O’Neill Theatre is, however, a very much alive Jane Fonda, now making her return to the stage after an absence of 46 years in other and not infrequently stormier pursuits.

She has, this playgoer must testify, come a long way from the gawky, self-conscious ingénue who, in 1963, thrown in with such quality as Geraldine Page, Franchot Tone, Ben Gazzara, Pat Hingle, and William Prince, could hardly walk across one such stage in Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.”

If the “33 Variations” scenes in Beethoven-haus reminds you a little of the sequence in “Citizen Kane” in which the reporter on the track of “Rosebud” is icily allowed into the archival sanctum sanctorum of the late Charles Foster Kane, so be it.

Kaufman goes one step farther than Orson Welles. He has Dr. Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann) require Dr. Grant to put on latex gloves before touching the treasured scraps of paper. But the same Dr. Gertrude Ladenburg will soon enough take the dying Katharine Grant under her wing in a sort of bi-national caring sisterhood. They will both worry about Dr. Grant’s daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis), as independent-minded and stubborn as her mother, but less able to keep her career on any single track. Further complicating the picture is a self-effacing young male nurse — played quite charmingly by Colin Hanks — who falls for Clara, as, unwillingly, bit by bit, does she for him.

Like mother, like daughter, like Beethoven.

“Orson Welles has inspired so much of my work,” says Kaufman. “Going to museums and libraries, all that. I’m fascinated with the past. With history in general. Recapturing certain events in life.”

All of which was certainly manifest in Kaufman’s brilliant 1987 Tectonic (not Teutonic) production of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” where a set that consisted only of desks heaped with books, papers, journals, ledgers, poetry, and other printed matter gave the feel, the imprimatur, of History to the whole brutal (if self-engendered) crushing of the most flamboyant genius in all Britain.

And it was as true in a quite different way with “The Laramie Project,” Tectonic and Kaufman’s research via widespread interviews into the Wyoming township where, in 1997, a 21-year-old homosexual college student named Matthew Shepard had been beaten up and left to die in a freezing no man’s land, fastened against a fence in a sort of crucifixion.

In “33 Variations” historian Kaufman knits together a past and present spanning two centuries, placing upon the stage not just an irascible quasi-comedic Beethoven (Zach Grenier) but Beethoven’s prissy secretary, Anton Schindler (Eric Steele), and the self-inflated Vienna music publisher, Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia), who in 1819, or thereabouts, took it upon himself to send to 50 leading composers of the day a bit of music of his own authorship — the trashy waltz — inviting each of them to write one variation on it, for publication in a luxury edition that would, well, glorify Anton Diabelli.

Beethoven at first turned up his nose at the whole idea — but then, when Diabelli added a bit of money to the invitation, changed his mind and, in a kind of fury that occupied him from 1819 to 1823, came up with not one, not two, not six, not a dozen, but 33 increasingly delicate variations/

Why?

“Just to show all Vienna,” says Moisés Kaufman, “what a masterwork he could create out of a grain of sand.”

Kaufman calls himself “a music nut” who likes “the Big Three” — Bach, Beethoven, Mozart — but not a Beethoven nut as such. Still, he was in the (late, lamented) Tower Records at Lincoln Center looking for a piece by Beethoven that wasn’t in stock, “so then a salesman handed me the ‘33 Variations.’ I took it home and that’s how this all started, five years ago.”

The play developed slowly at a Tectonic Project workshop — twenty pages at a time, and then another twenty, and so on.” Around six months ago, they got a script to Jane Fonda — who was last on stage the year before I was born.”

Moisés Kaufman, Yeshiva boy, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on November 21, 1963, so Ms. Fonda was actually last on stage the same year he was born. “We had one dinner, shook hands, and said: ‘We’re going to do this.’ ”

And so they have.

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