Call it a whydunit. One of the classical music world’s enduring mysteries is why Ludwig van Beethoven devoted four years of his diminishing life writing 33 variations of a mediocre waltz penned by a Viennese music publisher, all for a relative pittance. That’s roughly the same amount of time, and perhaps energy, that playwright-director Moises Kaufman has spent turning the curious episode into theater. His much-workshopped “33 Variations” finally gets its premiere in an earnest co-production by Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Project and D.C.’s Arena Stage.
The works in question are known as the Diabelli Variations for the publisher who, in 1819, invited 50 of Vienna’s composers to each write a single derivative work based on his waltz. An ailing Beethoven initially spurned the offer, calling the waltz “insignificant,” but then became fixated on the assignment. History does not record why.
Kaufman (“The Laramie Project”) has chosen not to present the tale as straight history but to create fictional contemporary characters to fashion a drama about perseverance against physical and emotional hardship. He does so in brief scenes dubbed “variations” in the script. Mimicking the composer’s diverse styles, they range in mood and tempo while also intermingling characters in time and space.
In some respects, the drama evokes memories of Jens Bjorneboe’s 1969 play “Semmelweis,” a more historically presented treatment about the adversities faced by the Hungarian-Austrian physician credited with founding modern antiseptic techniques.
In Kaufman’s play, a prominent musicologist, convincingly played by Mary Beth Peil, has decided to probe the mystery by traveling to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, Germany, where the original variations are stored. She does so over the objections of her daughter (Laura Odeh), who is worried about her mother’s own declining health. The woman suffers from Lou Gehrig’s Disease and, like Beethoven, is in a race against time.
A fixated Beethoven (Graeme Malcolm) is concurrently waging his own campaign with help from a faithful assistant (Erik Steele). Don Amendolia plays the persistent and bewildered publisher. Others in the solid cast include Susan Kellermann as a stern but compassionate German archivist and Greg Keller as the daughter’s eager boyfriend, who is also her mother’s nurse.
The intriguing play is unveiled with valuable assistance from Derek McLane’s functional set, David Lander’s quickly changing lighting and Jeff Sugg’s vivid projections of Beethoven’s music sheets. In addition, concert pianist Diane Walsh expertly accompanies the action with each of Beethoven’s variations. It adds up to total immersion in a musical — and psychological — master class.
Following an initial workshop at the Sundance Theater in Provo, Utah, three additional sessions were held in collaboration with Arena and its senior dramaturg, Mark Bly.
It’s easy to envision a running topic among them. Kaufman created for himself a mighty challenge to fashion a story that consistently examines parallels with the artist’s obsession amid physical decline, while also building suspense and occasionally lightening the load with humor. The result, at times, suggests many composers tinkering with the notes.
One example is a short act-one scene featuring boy and girl on their awkward first date at a concert, tentatively touching. While easily the play’s most endearing scene, it is out of step with what follows and registers as a contrived change in tempo. A later scene in a cafeteria line, in which characters discuss hiring a male prostitute for the declining researcher, is also questionable.
The play could also benefit from more subtlety in underscoring of the various parallel predicaments. Act one even ends with principal characters spouting identical lines in unison about their situations like a Greek chorus. Yet on balance, “33 Variations” offers a satisfying glimpse at individual determination and the timeless pursuit of perfection.