The bar is set high when a film star of Jane Fonda’s magnitude takes to the stage to impersonate an unglamorous, everyday soul, but that’s where talent wills out. In Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” Fonda’s indomitability invests dying musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt with true grit and transcendent grace. With Kaufman’s fluid helming shifting us excitingly between the 19th century and our own, the play remains what it was in La Jolla in 2007 (with a different Katherine) and later in Gotham: a potent family drama wrapped inside a fascinating historical mystery.
Brandt and Kaufman are both absorbed by a musical question: With poverty, debilitation, a Mass and the Ninth Symphony to cope with, why on earth did Beethoven (Zach Grenier) bother to spend the better part of latter years 1819-1823 on almost three dozen variations on a minor waltz by ambitious publisher Diabelli (Don Amendolia)?
As performed live by pianist Diane Walsh, the Diabelli Variations’ beauty is evident even to the untutored ear, which readily accepts their description as precedent-breaking forerunners of great modern music to come. But with ALS accelerating almost as quickly as Beethoven’s deafness, Brandt is determined to ferret out the truth from Beethoven’s mountainous sketchbooks in Bonn, Germany before her fade to black.
Truth be told, Fonda is never 100% credible as a scholar immersed for decades in sheet music and chicken-scratch notation. Enthusiasm she’s got but not a specialist’s thirst for certainty, so we don’t quite feel her urgency to complete her monograph as the capstone of a life’s work.
But Katherine’s need, bordering on the religious, to locate the source of the Variations’ magic is right in Fonda’s wheelhouse. So is her impatience with weakness, especially her own as the actress executes a heartbreaking decline by inches into dystrophy and paralysis.
And no one plays contempt for dilettantism better than Fonda, whose gorge rises at the desultory career search of daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis), by all evidence destined for the same mediocrity as Diabelli’s little ditty. Past hurts inform every thrust and parry both stateside and overseas; you can practically see Fonda muscle up as Mathis offers the kind of thesping duel we recall from the star’s pic heyday of “Klute” and “Coming Home.”
Grenier’s Beethoven actually persuades us of the greatness he’s supposed to possess. Overall Kaufman indulges more broadness than at La Jolla, the 19th-century characters played in a comic-opera idea of period style rather than with full verisimilitude.
But always on target is Greg Keller’s goofball Nurse Mike, confidently tending to the scholar’s physical needs while gingerly exploring the daughter’s emotional ones. Keller’s is an original comic creation, and poignant to boot.
Derek McLane’s inspired set concept derives from the mile-high Beethoven archives surrounding and dwarfing the participants, each drawer lit by David Lander to hint at unimaginable wonders. Jeff Sugg’s projections of actual sketchbook facsimiles fill the eye with unmistakable evidence of fevered genius.