Volume 78 - Number 42 / March 25 -31, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


33 Variations
Written & Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Through May 24Eugene O’Neill Theatre
239 West 49th Street

Fonda is #1 reason to see 33 Variations

Actress returns to Broadway with a cathartic, emotional performance


Seeing legendary actress Jane Fonda on the stage is certainly an event. The 71-year-old multiple Oscar winner is in top form in “33 Variations,” Moises Kaufman’s ambitious new drama about a musicologist suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. The venerable Fonda plays a woman obsessed with finishing a thesis about why Beethoven did 33 variations of a pedestrian waltz by Anton Diabelli.  The premise itself doesn’t sound intriguing, but Fonda’s performance is so incandescent that it almost overshadows the story’s numerous flaws. Fonda’s iconic elegant delivery and electric stage presence make her character, Dr. Katherine Brandt, unforgettable.

Moises Kaufman, known for his acclaimed plays “The Laramie Project” and “I Am My Own Wife,” has some great themes going on here about classical music, mother-daughter relationships, and the will to live and work even when one’s body is deteriorating from a debilitating disease. The problem is, as both playwright and director, he’s unable to keep his often rambling and scattershot narrative focused.

The story goes back and forth from New York to the Beethoven archive in Bonn, Germany, with various scenes of Ludwig van Beethoven himself (Zach Grenier) coping with going deaf. This is juxtaposed with Katherine’s own tale of physical decline, while her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis) starts falling in love with her mother’s nurse, Mike (Colin Hanks). Katharine is infatuated with examining Beethoven’s sketches of the 33 variations in the Bonn archive, and quickly befriends archivist Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (wonderfully played by Susan Kellerman).

Kaufman adds in the stories of Beethoven biographer Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and music publisher Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia). All these simultaneous subplots would work fine in a film or novel, but they are confusing and jarring in a stage play.

The play features numerous multi-media touches, such as projections giving the number of each Beethoven variation of Diabelli’s waltz, and strobe-light-style X-rays of Katherine at the doctor’s office, as well as more standard props like huge stacks of library boxes in the archive. These all provide great minimalist anchors for the set and give badly needed visualization for such a complex, sometimes convoluted plot.

As Beethoven, Zach Grenier, clad in a wig and Janice Pytel’s gorgeous period costumes, is a bit over the top, screaming out his lines with shrill intensity, making the classical virtuoso seem like a mere caricature. The rest of the cast, however, is first rate, especially Samantha Mathis as Clara, a woman determined to overcome long-standing emotional riffs with her dying mother. Colin Hanks has great chemistry with her, and portrays Mike as a caring man with much compassion for Clara and her mother.

The primary reason to see “33 Variations” is Jane Fonda, who makes her return to Broadway after 43 years (she was last seen on the New York stage back in 1963 in Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude”). Her performance is a cathartic, emotional workout itself, and she beautifully plays Katherine as a vibrant intellectual who quickly deteriorates into a frail shell of her former self, eventually unable to walk or even speak. It’s a heartbreaking, brilliant portrayal that Fonda fans should not miss.

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