It’s been 46 years since Jane Fonda’s last role on Broadway but there’s no sign of rustiness in the cool command she brings to “33 Variations.” Fonda certainly knows her way around characters like musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt, an impassioned woman hungry for knowledge and reluctant to concede her weaknesses. Playing an emotionally distant parent who finds closeness with her daughter only at the end of her life, the iconic star’s work here is also illuminated by personal history, mirroring her own famously troubled relationship with her father. If Moises Kaufman’s elegant production outshines his schematic play, Fonda nonetheless distinguishes it with integrity and class.
After two false starts to her career comeback with forgettable Hollywood movies, “Monster-in-Law” and “Georgia Rule,” Fonda is in more rewarding territory with this snug-fitting role, which echoes the staunch determination and strong-willed independence of many of her screen characters. Watching the conflicting forces of fear and pride do battle across her handsomely aged face as Katherine steadily succumbs to the ravages of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, it’s perhaps inevitable that both Fonda’s on- and offscreen personae inform the experience.
A sort-of “Wit”-meets-“Amadeus,” the play is a race against time, in which Katherine struggles to complete an important monograph before her body gives out. The subject is Beethoven’s 33 variations on an undistinguished waltz by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli. Acting against the advice of concerned daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis), Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany, to conduct research, determined to discover what drove the great composer to devote years of failing health and approaching deafness to riff on a seemingly inconsequential musical trifle.
Those twin, time-challenged obsessions — Katherine’s to unravel the mystery and Beethoven’s to complete the mushrooming task he set himself — are explored with symmetry that’s a little too neat and tidy, reverberating through the play as snatches of identical dialogue are heard across the world and the centuries.
Kaufman up to now has been best known as an assembly-man playwright, distilling interviews and transcripts through his Tectonic Theater Project into collaborative pieces like “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.” He brings the same patchwork method to this more conventional dual narrative, stuffing research and a daunting load of exposition into an uneven package that has fascinating insights into the creation and appreciation of music, juxtaposed with sometimes hackneyed melodrama.
The setup is promising and the shifting between the early 19th century and the present remarkably fluid. Fonda injects dry humor into her interaction with history as the irascible Beethoven (Zach Grenier), his fawning, over-protective assistant Schindler (Erik Steele) and portly Diabelli (Don Amendolia) materialize onstage.
But the parallels of two resilient creative minds betrayed by the failure of the body become increasingly belabored. And Kaufman only fully succeeds in identifying his key theme — about the haste of life blinding us to the beauty and grace of individual moments — in a final summation.
The romantic subplot is especially pedestrian, despite the actors’ best efforts. Mathis as Clara and Colin Hanks as Katherine’s nurse and her daughter’s boyfriend both bring charm and sensitivity to their parts. She’s more dutiful than warm toward her mother, clearly bruised by a lifetime of being kept at arm’s length; he’s a personable nerd, his softness and humor tempering the more brittle edges of the two women.
But the dialogue in the young characters’ scenes could use a polish, from the preciousness of their his-and-hers inner voices during their first date to some cringe-inducing moments in their later intimate exchanges. “I just want to feel healthy,” says Clara after instigating sex, picking up a theme from a few scenes earlier, in which the benefits for Katherine of physical contact are discussed. Repetition is an essential part of any variation and Kaufman has structured the play to echo that musical form, but too often the writer doesn’t trust the audience to find the recurring motifs unassisted.
However, in addition to the restraint and subtlety of Fonda’s performance, there are compensations. The gradual bridging of the gap between mother and daughter is delicately traced, as Katherine deals with her fear that Clara’s creative restlessness will yield a life of mediocrity. And the musicologist’s growing friendship with Gertrude (Susan Kellermann), the initially frosty German scholar who controls the vast archive of Beethoven’s compositional sketches and personal papers, also is satisfyingly drawn, illustrating that emotional detachment can facilitate communication.
Transfiguration in both life and art is a constant refrain, but it’s in his elucidation of the music that Kaufman elevates the play to another level. With pianist Diane Walsh playing excerpts or entire passages from the Diabelli Variations, breaking down intricate phrases to show us the patterns behind them, we share directly in the exaltation of Beethoven’s artistry and Katherine’s discoveries. And while Grenier’s Beethoven veers toward cartoonishness in his volatile rants, he’s transporting as he verbalizes the creation of the powerful fugue variation No. 32, bathed in golden light and accompanied by Walsh’s nimble playing.
There’s perhaps a couple too many mannered directorial flourishes, but overall this is an impeccably honed production, its fine cast backed by exquisite visuals. David Lander’s mercurial lighting and Jeff Sugg’s artful projections blend seamlessly with Derek McLane’s striking, modern designs, dominated by endless filing drawers and by waltzing walls of sheet music.
One image in particular lingers in the head, of Katherine exhausted after an X-ray, leaning back for support on Beethoven’s cloaked shoulder in a moving union of pain shared across time.