Tuesday, March 10, 2009

33 Variations


Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman. Eugene O'Neill Theatre. (CLOSED)

Jane Fonda gets high marks from most critics for picking Moisés Kaufman's ambitious musicologist mystery/drama as her Broadway return after nearly five decades, and a fair number also praise her strong performance as a terminally ill Beethoven scholar. For others, though, strength is the problem; they can't believe she's in poor health, let alone obsessed with the minutiae of Ludwig van's scores. For his part, Kaufman gets much more love for his smooth, meticulous direction than for his script; even those who found themselves engrossed had a number of quibbles with Kaufman's choices or tone. Strikingly, the show's B- is pretty reflective of the consensus; though the grades range from A- to D+, there are few outright slams or fulsome raves but instead a preponderance of above-average notices. Included is a fine review from Fonda's adopted-hometown newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

New York A
(Stephanie Zacharek) Nothing can kill a night of pleasure at the theater faster than a play about death, life, and the meaning of art, the kind of thing in which characters exist only as mouthpieces for disembodied ideas. But 33 Variations isn't, blessedly, that sort of play: Kaufman, who also directed this production, clearly wants to keep our nerve endings alive, not deaden them...Kaufman doesn't just run roughshod over his characters on the way to the big epiphany. He allows them room to make plenty of wisecracks, as well as mistakes; he gives them space to be human. Fonda meets the challenge like a warrior queen. She may be playing an excessively cerebral academic, but the physicality of her performance is what sticks with you...What 33 Variations suggests, ultimately, is that when ideas breathe at all, it's because human beings have given shape to them in the first place. We're their alphabet, their notation, and the form we give them can linger, miraculously, even after we're gone.

Lighting and Sound America A
(David Barbour) Less a work of drama than a kind of theme-and-variations consideration of music, motherhood, and mortality...Kaufman doesn't exactly weave these stories together; he more or less lets them unfold simultaneously on the constantly shifting contours of Derek McLane's brilliant set, in which walls of sheet music serve as projection surfaces (images by Jeff Sugg)...Anyone attending 33 Variations expecting the conventional pleasures of conventional drama is likely to be a bit disappointed. Kaufman isn't interested in probing his characters' psychological corners, or neatly plotted conflicts with well-timed conclusions...But if you're willing to follow Kaufman on this highly singular journey, I'm willing to bet that you'll find yourself very much moved by the civility and the sheer humaneness of this unique work. Of course, 33 Variations brings Jane Fonda back to Broadway after 46 years -- and she fully embodies the mass of contradictions that is Katherine Brandt...Kaufman has drawn remarkably assured performances from his entire cast.

Nytheatre.com A
(Martin Denton) 33 Variations is a compelling and entertaining show, and Jane Fonda—in her first Broadway appearance in 46 years—is terrific in it. It's a pleasure to have her on stage, in a role that suits and showcases her talents beautifully....As someone who is in awe of the ability to create something extraordinary (music, for example, or a play) out of seemingly nothing but that indefinable thing called inspiration, and as someone who spends his days and nights observing, sorting through, and reporting on said extraordinary creations, I found 33 Variations very resonant indeed.

American Theatre Web A-
(Andy Propst) A particularly good Broadway bet. Not only does the show...star Jane Fonda in her first Broadway appearance since 1963, it also happens to be, in many ways, two plays that have been delicately and musically interwoven...Kaufman has undertaken to write a play which also mimics Beethoven's musicianship. As the stories develop, lines, plot points and some of the characters' emotions and intentions echo one another with slight twists, often surprisingly, and as Katherine describes the music, which is beautifully and movingly played by pianist Diane Walsh, one comes to hear how the playwright's intricately detailed writing is theatrically doing what Beethoven did with various chords and tonal progressions from Diabelli's 50-second waltz. The physical production gorgeously supports Kaufman's ambitious piece, in which scenes from the two periods often segue into one another.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) 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...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...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...Derek McLane's scenic design is a character in its own right.

New York Press A-
(Leonard Jacobs) A play that shines but rarely glows...Weirdly, by writing a traditional play, Kaufman is sometimes waylaid by traditional playwriting tricks...Art needn’t always be a crucible, you see. It can be, of course, but art can also be because we like it. What an unusual gift that Fonda—and Kaufman—gives us.

Talkin' Broadway B+
(Matthew Murray) Just as Moisés Kaufman’s play...explores how some of Beethoven’s most surprising and seminal compositions evolved from an unremarkable source, so too does the play’s commonplace basis slowly morph into something both intricate and beautiful. Luckily, as with the Beethoven, the good outweighs the pedestrian. There is, however, a fair amount of the ordinary to overcome...You may feel you’re watching a graduate student’s joint master’s thesis project for both classical music and playwriting...Kaufman never loses sight of the kernels of dramatic truth even as he riffs on them variously as mystery story, melodrama, or outright comedy; that’s why the play ultimately works so well, if so coldly...If [it] lacks the personal warmth and theatrical spice necessary for any true classic, it’s a compellingly original and thoroughly watchable play for today that deserves to remembered for more than merely being the vehicle for Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway after a 43-year absence.

New York 1 B+
(Roma Torre) For all its lofty ambitions, it doesn't rise to the level of great theater. Still, it's an engaging work centering on a classical music mystery; and Jane Fonda's performance is a high note...Cleverly combining Beethoven's glorious music, courtesy the very gifted pianist Diane Walsh, with scenes depicting Beethoven and other key players, Kaufmann sets up what promises to be a fascinating slice of the legendary maestro's life...The ensemble is very strong, but the revelation is Fonda, who's back on stage for the first time in 46 years and it's as if she never left. Both commanding and vulnerable, she adds a sublime depth to the part covering the play's flaws with her powerfully elegant presence. There is much to admire in this play, and even with its weaknesses, "33 Variations" strikes a resonant chord.

USA Today B
(Elysa Gardner) What elevates this above a Lifetime TV movie musical (there is piano accompaniment, by Diane Walsh) is Kaufman's vigorous guidance of a fine ensemble. Fonda plays Katherine with wit and compassion, and manages to make her physical struggles credible and compelling—even if you don't believe for a second that a woman can look this good while her muscles are atrophying. Samantha Mathis lends her usual unfussy intelligence to Clara, while Colin Hanks makes a thoroughly winning Broadway debut as Mike. If his natural, likable presence makes comparisons with dad Tom unavoidable, that should be his biggest problem. Susan Kellermann gamely fills the stock role of the heroine's droll colleague and confidante, a German scholar whose stern voice belies a playful side. Their performances, along with some glorious music, make 33 Variations engaging in spite of its contrivances.

Financial Times B
(Brendan Lemon) Overly schematic, eventually affecting...The chief problem with Fonda’s performance is also its prime virtue: tenseness. To convey Katherine’s fierce determination to discover why Beethoven lavished so much time composing variations on a theme he initially dismissed as a “cobbler’s patch”, she must convey firmness. But she needs to relax more on stage to convey a fuller range of emotion. Returning to the theatre at the age of 71 and after a 46-year absence, Fonda looks marvellous but is still finding her ease...The play’s structure – Beethoven’s growing deafness and obsession with Diabelli’s waltz parallels Katherine’s deterioration and fixation on Beethoven’s compositional process – unravels with plodding inevitability...This 33 Variations is very nearly swamped by its physical production. The mounds of boxes in the Bonn basement archive may suggest a cultural bunker against Philistine threats from outside, but they also occasionally distract from the story.

Theatermania B
(David Finkle) Kaufman juggles these elements in ways that are sometimes rewarding and convincing -- particularly in the mother-daughter reconciliation that slowly unfolds -- and sometimes not...Although he stumbles in the writing, Kaufman makes no noticeable slips in a stunning production that's designed by Derek McLane to include archive stacks on casters and is enhanced by Jeff Sugg's projections of sheet music with replicas of Beethoven's writings. As for the cast, Fonda -- in her first Broadway appearance in over 45 years -- does a reputable job of growing progressively infirm; Grenier is the Beethoven that Kaufman wants; and Mathis and Hanks fall sweetly in love. Indeed, the entire ensemble sees to it that verbal music is made with the literal music.

AM New York B
(Matt Windman) For the most part, Kaufman’s play hits the right notes – and not just with music. It is an engrossing and moving drama that music enthusiasts are bound to especially appreciate. Still, it would really benefit from some careful cutting here and there, especially with regard to tacked on subplots involving Katherine’s daughter, the daughter’s goofy boyfriend, and a butch female clerk at the archives. Kaufman’s production cinematically mixes together creative storytelling, nonstop projections of sheet music sketches, and a live piano recital from Diane Walsh, who plays the “Diabelli Variations” underneath the dialogue. Needless to say, Fonda is the real muscle of the production.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution B
(Wendell Brock) Fonda makes her first Broadway appearance in almost 46 years—exhibiting the serene inner beauty of a woman who seems to have spent several lifetimes fighting back the demons of tragedy, fame and controversy...Happily, hers is a bravura performance: technically polished, emotionally engaging, honest to the core...Both Katherine and Beethoven wrestle with matters of death, time and the creative process. Kaufman wisely leaves the answers to these profound questions unresolved, letting audiences decide with their hearts. At its best, “33 Variations” recalls Margaret Edson’s “Wit” (about a poetry scholar dying of cancer), Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” and the work of Tony Kushner. But the play sags in the middle and ultimately feels a few variations too long.

The Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The Oscar winner brings everything to this role that's made her an iconic film star: Pure enthusiasm, toughness tempered by vulnerability, and that distinctive voice which makes every line fascinating. Too bad this handsomely designed but unconvincing drama isn't as big an event as Fonda's return...What begins as an exciting journey of discovery, with hints of "Amadeus," sinks into a conventional Lifetime mom-and-daughter reconciliation...The stylish staging tickles the senses. Derek McLane's set, which features twirling panels covered in sheet music, and David Lander's beautiful lighting are first-rate. Adding another layer of interest is concert pianist Diane Walsh, who accompanies the action by playing Beethoven's variations.

New Yorker B-
A musicology lecture disguised as an intellectual detective story within an emotional melodrama...Kaufman’s scenes may be clumsy, but the interplay between the stories of Beethoven and Brandt is elegant. The excitement of Beethoven’s visionary genius doesn’t extend to Kaufman’s plot, however, whose simplistic shorthand is more televisionary. The play marks Fonda’s return to the Broadway stage after forty-six years, but the role is no test of her emotional range. Her presence—with its curious amalgam of alertness and standoffishness—is a neat bit of typecasting.

The New York Times B-
(Ben Brantley) Playing a sharp-witted, terminally ill musicologist confronting the betrayal of her body, Ms. Fonda exudes an aura of beleaguered briskness that flirts poignantly with the ghost of her spiky, confrontational screen presence as a young woman. Ms. Fonda’s layered crispness is, I regret to add, a contrast to Mr. Kaufman’s often soggy play...Still, I’m willing to forgive a fair amount in a production that returns Ms. Fonda with such gallantry to the Broadway stage after an absence of 46 years...Mr. Kaufman evidently hoped to create a sort of cultural-metaphysical detective story, somewhere between the biographical psychodrama of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” and the time-traveling, serious playfulness of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” But here Mr. Kaufman lacks the brazen theatrical flair of Mr. Shaffer and the cerebral deftness of Mr. Stoppard, offering instead much canned sentimental dialogue about self-knowledge and self-acceptance. For a show about transcendence through music, “33 Variations” can often feel oddly tone-deaf.

Variety B-
(David Rooney) If Moises Kaufman's elegant production outshines his schematic play, Fonda nonetheless distinguishes it with integrity and class...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...The setup is promising and the shifting between the early 19th century and the present remarkably fluid...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...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.

Bergen Record C+
(Robert Feldberg) That time-sharing idea activates an observer's comparison gene: How does what's happening on stage measure up against Tom Stoppard's dazzling 1993 play "Arcadia," the gold standard in present-past drama?...Kaufman's effort has its distinctive, and even lovely, moments, but, overall, it doesn't stack up very well against Stoppard's play...Fonda, who looks fantastic, seems somewhat ill at ease in her first appearance on Broadway in 46 years, reflexively using her hands and arms to help get across nearly every sentence. Rather than a passionate, obsessed scholar, she suggests an elegant society matron dabbling in the arts. Fonda, who's 71, relaxes, and is much better, in the second act, as she portrays Brandt slowly succumbing to a degenerative illness...The story is significantly compromised by the often cutesy, jokey style in which Kaufman tells it...What rises above the commonplace in the play is Beethoven's music, the beneficial result of what seems to be Kaufman's obsession...It's hard to explain how the beauty and mysterious power of music is achieved, but Kaufman often manages to do just that.

The Washington Post C+
(Peter Marks) Fonda's agelessness owes something to both the longevity of her fame and the intensity of her struggle against physical decline...On this occasion, she not only manages to transcend time, but also the material. For "33 Variations," which opened last night at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, marks a pleasing Broadway return for Fonda, even if it's little more than a handsomely annotated music lesson...The characters' intersections across time feel no more emotionally urgent than if they had been plotted on a spreadsheet...Intelligently orchestrated interludes bump up against far clunkier scenes in which, for example, characters echo one another's thoughts across time, or when, in her exhaustion, Katherine rests her head against the back of the equally spent Beethoven.

New York Post C+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Fonda's seemingly congenital inability to suggest weakness undermines both her character and the play's dynamics. We are very far from the emotional and intellectual punch of "Wit," in which Kathleen Chalfant memorably bared body and soul as a John Donne expert dying of cancer. But the star also struggles to suggest, in the beginning, that obsession can create its own thrills. This leads to a deep imbalance onstage because Zach Grenier isn't afraid to go over the top as an entertaining, somewhat hammy Beethoven...The author of fact-based works like "The Laramie Project" and "Gross Indecency," Kaufman regurgitates his considerable research in artless chunks...The piece is quite effective when Kaufman-the-director takes over for Kaufman-the-writer: when Fonda shows a glimpse of fear as Katherine submits to strobe-like X-rays, or when Mathis silently suggests apprehension and sorrow, arms folded and shoulders hunched.

Bloomberg News C+
(John Simon) Fonda fans, of whom I am one, will not be disappointed, though they may be surprised. She looks, even from the fifth row, 45 or less and alluring as ever...The author shuttles contrapuntally among the three stories, sometimes in strainedly fugal scenes wherein the same words pass from one character to another, from story to story, across space and time...Telling three stories, even interlocking ones, does not allow for delving deep into character. And, though cunningly manipulated, the music and the action are not a match made in heaven...Through it all, Fonda gives a sterling performance.

DC Theatre Scene C+
(Richard Seff) The New York notices were favorable for the most part, but I had some problems with the play itself...Matters were not helped by the acting and directorial approach to the characters in 1819-l822 (Beethoven, his assistant Anton Schindler, his publisher Diabelli). Those three seemed to me to be in a musical comedy - images of Herman Bing and Felix Bressart kept popping up each time Zach Grenier spoke as Beethoven and Erik Steele retorted as Schindler. Back in the present, Susan Kellerman as Fonda’s Doctor Ladenburger, Samantha Mathis and Colin Hanks as her daughter and her daughter’s suitor played naturalistically, but none of their characters were more than sketched in the writing...The physical production was smashing, with a set by Derek McLane that successfully transports us with great style from century to century...Jane Fonda’s lovely work at the center of the piece, combined with the excellent production, had me willing to stay with it.

Time Out NY C
(David Cote) Time has not withered Jane Fonda: The 71-year-old film star stands tall and erect, radiating strength in the opening scenes of 33 Variations...But such A-list dignity soon becomes a liability, since wither is what Brandt must do in order to lend her arc pathos and grit. She suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Fonda seems more concerned with looking fabulous than delivering the textured, full-bodied performance that Moisés Kaufman’s underwritten play desperately needs...In dramatic terms, 33 Variations is cultured, balanced, humane—and dull. Kaufman has done his research and connects the dots, but forgot to write fully rounded or surprising characters. The theme-and-variations analogy between the titular composition and the course of Brandt’s disease—and her evolving relationship with her daughter (Mathis)—is schematically neat but inert. That leaves us with Beethoven’s rapturous music, which stands the test of time best of all.

The Hollywood Reporter C
(Frank Scheck) Musicology and melodrama mesh uneasily in "33 Variations," a new play by Moises Kaufman that marks Jane Fonda's return to Broadway after a mere 46-year hiatus. While this tale of a music historian's obsession with a mystery involving Beethoven is pretty thin stuff, abiding audience affection for its iconic star could result in solid business for its planned limited run...The play, which Kaufman describes as "a series of variations on a moment in a life," is most successful in its exploration of a fascinating episode in music history, with pianist Diane Walsh playing numerous excerpts from the work in question on a grand piano at the foot of the stage. The dramatic elements, such as Katherine's increasingly desperate struggle with illness and Clara and Mike's awkward courtship, prove far less interesting, though the scenes involving Beethoven have an undeniably arresting "Amadeus"-like quality.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) A strained, pseudo-serious, intellectually scattershot project that makes us appreciate all the pitfalls that "Wit" (about a dying scholar with intimacy issues) and "Amadeus" (about Mozart's creative process) managed to avoid. Fonda, at least at Friday's preview, seemed brittle and uncomfortable in the talky first act, but warmed up admirably as the fast-moving disease gave her physical challenges to perform...Kaufman, who also directs, keeps everything busy - if not interesting - with rolling stacks of files, panels papered with pages of Beethoven's sketches and projected titles of the variations...The connection between plot and musical structure feels forced, and Beethoven's motivations are not the only mystery.

Associated Press D+
(Michael Kuchwara) Moises Kaufman's earnest, plot-heavy "33 Variations" swirls with big ideas about big subjects - life, death, art to name three - and how they intersect and illuminate each other. Yet the play...often seems dramatically tepid and slow moving. And this, despite the efforts of a hardworking cast that includes Jane Fonda...One of the problems with "33 Variations" is Fonda's cipherlike character. She may be centre stage much of the time, but we don't really learn much about her. Our emotional investment is limited as the woman's health slowly declines during her determined search for answers to Beethoven's obsession...The play, also directed by Kaufman, has been given a glossy, striking physical production.

Backstage D+
(David Sheward) Amadeus meets Lifetime TV. Kaufman has turned a potentially engrossing drama into a banal soap opera...It's only when Kaufman jumps the tracks and heads into unconventional territory that the play acquires much-needed humor and imagination...It is marvelous to see Fonda on Broadway...but she fails to generate sympathy for Dr. Brandt's plight or excitement for her thesis. While she competently delivers several long monologues on musical and personal history, her voice is occasionally strained, and she lacks the passion to make us care about the compositional process. That passion is supplied in spades by Zach Grenier's disheveled, tempestuous Beethoven...The play's highlight is a brief scene in which Beethoven composes one of the more beautiful variations as pianist Diane Walsh sensitively performs it. Anger, joy, and ecstasy cross his face as inspiration fuses with creation.

NY Observer D
(John Heilpern) [Fonda] seems to grow more and more attractive the closer her increasingly frail character comes to its last gasp. From walker to wheelchair to sayonara-it’s-been-swell, the dignified, forever beautiful Ms. Fonda resolutely endures. That is more than can be said for the play. Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, 33 Variations is a shamelessly manipulative stew of Lifetime Movie mixed with ghoulish biopic, pseudo-historical drama, a splash of Amadeus and faux art. And all in the name of refined Highbrow Culture at the theater!...Zach Grenier’s overripe performance as an irascible, blustery Beethoven is a loud cartoon, and Mr. Kaufman—best known for his docudramas (including The Laramie Project)—might have resisted the deaf jokes. He might also have skipped his coy—and horribly old-fashioned—romantic subplot involving Dr. Brandt’s partially estranged daughter and an emotionally dim male nurse wracked with torment about holding hands on their first date.

New York A 13; LS&A A 13; Nytheatre.com A 13; American Theatre Web A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; NY Press A- 12; Talkin' Broadway B+ 11; NY1 B+ 11; USA Today B 10; Financial Times B 10; Theatermania B 10; AM New York B 10; Atlanta Journal-Constitution B 10; The Daily News B- 9; New Yorker B- 9; The New York Times B- 9; Variety B- 9; Bergen Record C+ 8; The Washington Post C+ 8; New York Post C+ 8; Bloomberg News C+ 8; DC Theatre Scene C+ 8; Time Out NY C 7; The Hollywood Reporter C 7; Newsday C- 6; Associated Press D+ 5; Backstage D+ 5; NYO D 4; 256/28=9.14 (B-)

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