The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings







Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
A CurtainUp Review
33 Variations

Although this play is based on historical event, namely the birth of the Diabelli Variations, I have chosen to explore this story from a fictional perspective. Thus, this play is not a reconstruction of a historical event, rather it's a series of variations on a moment in a life.— Moises Kaufman
Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
Jane Fonda in 33 Variations
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
At first, Moises Kaufman's elegantly constructed and staged 33 Variations may have you identifying with the young man central to one of its three tightly and inventively inter-connected stories. He's at a concert which is not his natural habitat and thinks out loud, "Oh I wish I knew more about what I'm listening to. It all sounds like 'classical' music to me."

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.

Zach Grenier as Beethoven
Zach Grenier as Beethoven
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Fonda's understated performance makes this an ensemble and the seven other actors are all well chosen, and guided by the playwright-director to give assured, illuminating performances, whether the tempo is vivacissimo or larghissimo. Actually the trio of actors playing the historical figures have the most flamboyant roles, most notably Zach Grenier. His Beethoven is as fixated on getting those variations right as Katherine Brandt is to finally solve the enigma of what it was about this insignificant composer's insignificant waltz that made him drop everything else to keep writing variations until he found the right ending. It is the fugue-like back and forth and the way it draws parallels between the characters that gives the play its uniqueness and also make it great fun. And for anyone interested in how a piece of music is constructed, Grenier's monologue about Variation 32 will be a revelation.

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.

33 Variations
Writtend and directed by Moises Kaufman
Cast: Jane Fonda (Katherine Brandt), Samantha Mathis (Clara Brandt), Colin Hanks (Mike Clark), Zach Grenier (Beethoven), Don Amendolia (Anton Diabelli), Susan Kellermann (Dr. Gertie Ladenburger), Erik Steele (Anton Schindler) and Diane Walsh (Pianist).
Sets: Derek McLane
Costumes: Janice Pytel
Additional Costumes: David C. Woolard
Lights: David Lander
Sound: André Pluess
Projection Design: Jeff Sugg
Hair/wig design: Charles LaPointe
Choreography: Daniel Pelzig
Dramaturg: Mark Bly
Stage Manager: Linda Marvel
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission
t Eugene O'Neill Theatre 230 West 49th Street, (212) 239-6200
Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a Wednesday and Saturday matinee at 2:00PM and Sunday matinee at 3:00 PM. Tuesdays at 7PM beginning March 17th, 2009.
From 2/09/09; opening 3/09/09; closing 5/24/09.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 5th press performance
Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of 33 Variations
  • I disagree with the review of 33 Variations
  • The review made me eager to see 33 Variations
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email. . .also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

You can also contact us at Curtainup at Facebook or Curtainup at Twitter
Try for great seats to
Jersey Boys
The Little Mermaid
Lion King
Shrek The Musical

South Pacific  Revival
South Pacific

In the Heights
In the Heights

Playbill 2007-08 Yearbook

Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide


©Copyright 2009, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from