Lyric Stage's "33 Variations": Themes Like Old Times

“33 Variations”, the current production at Lyric Stage company, is based on an ingenious concept by playwright Moises Kaufmann (who also wrote “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project”). Kaufmann depicts the intensely focused quest by a present-day musicologist to decipher the meaning and motivation behind Beethoven’s composition of variations on a simple waltz theme composed by his contemporary, music publisher Anton Diabelli. The play was first performed by Washington’s Arena Stage in 2007 and San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2009 before making its Broadway debut, also in 2009. The New York production, in a limited run of two months, was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and had the distinction of featuring Jane Fonda in her first Broadway role in almost five decades.

Lyric’s production has some distinctive casting of its own, starting with local luminary Paula Plum as Dr. Katherine Brandt, the role previously played by Ms. Fonda. Plum’s interpretation is uncannily moving and believable. The author has written her as a driven music detective fascinated by the hitherto unknown reasons why Beethoven, when asked by Diabelli to write a variation on a theme Diabelli had written, actually ended up spending years producing thirty three of them, even as his increasingly debilitating deafness and consequent suffering continued to impact his life. Not coincidentally, we discover early in the play that Brandt has her own exacerbating suffering to endure, namely amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”. Plum, at first in almost imperceptible ways, physically portrays how the disease insidiously, gradually, implacably affects her personal and professional life, from weakness to muscular atrophy to difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. Kaufman portrays this while alternating his own thirty-three brief scenes between Brandt’s modern-day illness progression and that of the composer’s between the years of 1819 and 1823. It is this ongoing juxtaposition of these two characters’ parallel lives that provides the play’s fascination.

There is a flip side to the play, however, with some other convenient parallels that strain credulity and weaken the effectiveness of the story; for example, the obvious coincidence that Brandt’s German colleague Dr. Ladenburger, ably played by Maureen Keiller, had an aunt who died from the same disease, or that Brandt’s daughter Clara, also well played by Dakota Shepard, takes up a relationship with her mother’s male nurse Mike Clark, engagingly portrayed by Kelby T. Akin. We are never given the reasons why the relationship between mother and daughter has such baggage that gets in the way of any meaningful contact until the disease evokes what Mike describes as one of the benefits of ALS, forced intimacy, or the side effect of what he terms emotional incontinence. Both protagonists, Beethoven and Brandt, contemplate ending their lives, though his thought is to stop his endless suffering and hers is the fear of no longer being able to communicate.

While the parallels may seem contrived at times, they are nonetheless captivating, in no small part due to the terrific company of actors. Beethoven (James Andreassi) and Diabelli (Will McGarrahan) are perfectly amusing foils for one another, and Anton Schindler (Victor L. Shopov) makes a very credible (as it actually says on his calling card) “friend of Beethoven”. Mention should also be made of the pianist Catherine Stornetta who capably provides examples of the actual variations. Keeping these various themes in harmony is Director Spiro Veloudos, (Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director), who is aided by intriguing technical contributions, especially Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and Sound Design by Brendan F. Doyle, as well as Projection Design by Shawn Boyle. Each helps to support the central idea that creation, be it musical or theatrical, is about transfiguration, change that makes what might at first seem banal eventually appear better.

At the coda of the first act, the entire cast enacts a sort of theatrical equivalent of an operatic septet; for the second act coda, it’s a minuet. The basic theme by Diabelli emerges not as a mere trifle but a typical beer hall waltz, which we hear Beethoven use to reclaim all that is fleeting with new eyes. Both Brandt and Beethoven needed time to finish their work, as well as to find meaningful and fulfilling endings. One clue is given earlier in the play when Brandt quotes her daughter at an obviously precocious seven years of age: “When you listen to music, Mom, you look like you’re talking to God”. Brandt at one point claims she is not religious. But there are many forms of faith. “33 Variations” renews one’s faith in theater.

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