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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But, trust me. . . you don't have to know Beethoven from Bach to find yourself thoroughly absorbed by the theatricality with which Kaufman has tied a historic event — the legendary mystery surrounding one of Beethoven's composition — to a drama about a fatally ill Beethoven scholar, her relationship with her daughter and the daughter's burgeoning romance. The musical mystery involves the much debated question of why Beethoven, in ill health and on the verge of total deafness, chose to spend his time writing not just one but thirty-three variations of a beer hall waltz by Anton Diabelli, a minor composer but successful music publisher. Illness makes time an imperative overhanging Beethoven's obsession with completing the Variations, Dr. Brandt's determination to unravel the real story behind its composition, as well as for her and her daughter to come to a rapprochemont in their somewhat prickly relationship
Of course, having Jane Fonda play Dr. Katherine Brandt, the musicologist, is likely to be a bigger box office draw than the chance to hear excerpts of Beethoven's work played by an expert classical pianist (Diane Walsh). Happily, Fonda, does not disappoint. At seventy-one, she's trim and attractive, an advertisement for her famous fitness program; more importantly, she still has the presence to light up a stage. Yet there's no showiness about Fonda's portrayal of the self-contained and firmly focused academic. It's a performance somewhat reminiscent of the understated emotions that Kathleen Chalfant brought to Wit, although memories of that somewhat similar play makes you wish that Moises Kaufman had written her the epiphany Margaret Edson wrote for Dr. Vivian Bearing.
Don Amandolia is also colorful as Anton Diabelli, the man who composed that musical trifle for which he asked each of Vienna's leading composers to write a variation to include in what he hoped would be a sure-fire best selling musical anthology for his publishing company. But for all his commercial ambitions, Diabelli is the character who most clearly conveys how an appreciation of beautiful music can transform and enrich all of us. When Beethoven's loyal secretary and eventual biographer, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) hands him the manuscript for the 31st Variation, the enchanted Diabelli speaks for all music lovers when he tells Schindler "You and I. . .we both love beauty, we both can recognize it. But neither one of us can make it."
While the Beethoven mystery could stand up as a play of its own, it also gives the necessary fresh twist to the mother-daughter relationship and the daughter's romance. Samantha Mathis is touching as the daughter growing up in the shadow of an over-achieving mother who she nevertheless loves and wants desperately to support and connect with before time runs out. Colin Hanks is believable and likeable as Mike, the nurse Clara meets when she accompanies her mother for a medical test. Mike may not be a sophisticatd guy, but his love and support is exactly what Clara needs to see her through and beyond her mother's crisis. While Clara and Mike romance adds a light romantic touch, the couple's most memorable moment together is a throat-tightening scene in which he teaches her to give physical therapy to her mother. Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the guardian of the Bonn archives, manages to be both brusquely Germanic and the sort of sympathetic friend Katherine needs as her health deteriorates dramatically --as, count-counterpoint, does Beethoven's.
With all due respect to the actors and Mr. Kaufman's script with its apt musical structure to connect the crisis in the lives of Beethoven and a modern woman who's built a career around him, Derek McLane's scenic design is a character in its own right. A proscenium consisting of floor to ceiling shelves containing boxes upon boxes of manuscripts, is a marvel of aptness and flexibility for taking us from New York, to Bonn and early 19th-Century Vienna. A series of rotating manuscript covered panels handily accommodate Jeff Sugg's projections of everything from a concert hall to Katherine's MRI images.
This isn't the first time that a play about classical music defies the concerted wisdom about what a show needs to succeed with a widely diverse audience. In addition to Amadeus, another musical mystery (this one involving Mozart and his rival Salieri), there's the more recent Opus, about a string quartet and another Beethoven work, Opus 3 (review).
While 33 Variations is clearly appealing to intelligent and discerning theatergoers, the theatricality with which it's staged has an all-audience appeal that should give it life beyond this limited Broadway run. I wouldn't be surprised if Diane Walsh's piano accompaniment throughout the play seduces a fair number of audience members whose ipods are loaded with pop and rock music to buy the CD of her unabridged rendition of the Diabelli Variations on their way out of the O'Neill theater.