A concertgoer confesses, “I wish I knew more about what I’m listening to. It all sounds like ‘classical’ music to me.” Theatergoers in the same boat can expect an eye-opener in writer-helmer Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations” — not just an absorbing human interest story but a potent illustration of great music’s power to bridge the centuries in consolation, if not outright healing. Part domestic drama, part historical investigation, this elegant and heartfelt work marks an auspicious beginning to La Jolla Playhouse a.d. Christopher Ashley’s first season.
Recipient of this year’s American Theater Critics Assn. prize in its Arena Stage premiere, “33 Variations” exudes “Amadeus” appeal in its period setting and warts-and-all humanizing of a musical legend, in this case the irascible, incontinent Beethoven (Zach Grenier). Echoes of “Wit” are heard as well in the modern-day crusty academic Katherine Brandt (Jayne Atkinson) whose terminal illness prompts reconsideration of the context of her life’s work.
Kaufman synthesizes these familiar elements, and a seemingly mundane mother-daughter conflict, into a fresh and exciting theatrical event leavened by research as prodigious as that which underlay his previous docudramas “Gross Indecency” and “The Laramie Project.”
Most plays are energized when a clock is ticking, and this play boasts two. Invited to pen a variation on a banal little waltz by music publisher Diabelli (Don Amendolia), the rapidly failing Beethoven surprises officious aide Schindler (Erik Steele) by churning out a series of variations — two, six, 10, with no end in sight — as every faculty, except for his inspiration, begins to shut down.
But wherefore this compulsion to devote his waning years to the insignificant Diabelli composition, a “Schusterfleck” (cobbler’s patch) as he called it? As a conference deadline approaches, musicologist Katherine sifts through the composer’s sainted archives in Bonn for clues to this 200-year-old mystery, her search hindered by the worsening symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease and the contrariness of rootless daughter Clara (Laura Odeh, capturing the pain of a child unable to flourish in a talented parent’s shadow).
Katherine’s personal and professional circumstances lead her to a hypothesis reflecting a need for transfiguration in life as well as music: “One thing becoming another. From the banal to the exalted.” A composer’s variation, she explains, doesn’t just transform a melody, it redeems time itself — and both she and the composer fervently seek such a redemption as their hourglass runs out. Her solution to the Diabelli riddle may or may not persuade Beethoven scholars, but it resonates in the playhouse like the pure ping of a triangle.
Kaufman engages a myriad of ear- and eye-catching devices to illuminate the cross-century currents. Designer Derek McLane frames rotating panels of pinned-up music sheets within a proscenium of shelved archive boxes, with David Lander sending light from unexpected places for a sensuous environment of intellectual mystery and discovery. Pianist Diane Walsh stirringly plays the music in snippets and long excerpts as it’s created or discussed.
Jeffrey Sugg projects sheets from Beethoven’s actual notebooks onto a screen to Walsh’s accompaniment, permitting us to recognize Diabelli’s three opening notes (C, A, B-flat) and hear them picked up, expanded and exploited in the various numbered variations as we look over the maestro’s shoulder in the ecstatic act of creation.
Among the thesps, it’s easy to root for the mercurial Odeh, whose Clara finds solace in the attentions of nurse Mike (a humorous, grounded Ryan King). As a Bonn archivist, Susan Kellermann pulls off the tricky transition from stern taskmistress to sympathetic ally. Amendolia and Steele’s initial comic opera manner gives way to a serious core when the plot demands it.
But it’s the principals who ultimately invest “33 Variations” with its head and heart. A mite precious in his early scenes, Grenier takes wing as the composer’s deafness (vividly conveyed) sets his genius free, talking us through the composition of fugue variation No. 32 with lucidity and passion. Meanwhile, Atkinson fully engages our sympathy in frank description of her body’s decline, at one point exhaustedly leaning her head back onto Beethoven’s shoulder in a moving tableau of transcendent souls.