Researchers will love 33 Variations, which stars a still glamorous Jane Fonda as a musicologist doing the grubby, thankless work in the library stacks that defines a lot of academic life.
Pianists will also find the play by Moises Kaufman fascinating, since it is built around Beethoven's obsession with a simple tune that led to one of his major works for solo piano, 33 Variations on a Waltz of Diabelli.
But for other theatergoers, Kaufman's 33 Variations, now playing on Broadway, is a strangely uninvolving experience, despite an inventive production, directed by the playwright, and the fine performance of Diane Walsh, playing Beethoven's music at the Steinway grand piano.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Beethoven's masterpiece would diminish anything in its path. Kaufman's play is based on what happened when a Viennese publisher, Anton Diabelli, invited 50 composers each to write a single variation on a waltz, less than a minute long, that Diabelli, an amateur composer, had written. All the variations would be published together in a kind of greatest hits collection.
Schubert, Czerny, the 11-year-old Liszt and other popular composers dutifully churned out something for the project. Beethoven at first refused, but then he changed his mind and proceeded to spend years building a towering opus on the waltz he had dismissed as a schusterflecke, or "cobbler's patch.''
Between 1819 and 1824, late in his life when he was composing such mighty works as the Missa Solemnis and the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven transformed Diabelli's rudimentary music into one of his greatest creations. Among piano works, the Diabelli Variations, consisting of 33 mostly brief but extravagantly imaginative responses to the theme, is rivaled only by Bach's 32 Goldberg Variations.
Melody and melodrama
Many scholars have wondered why Beethoven became fixated on Diabelli's little tune, and Kaufman did, too, when he was first told about it by a clerk in a record store five years ago.
"It immediately captured my imagination,'' the playwright said in a story in American Theatre magazine. "Why would someone of Beethoven's stature choose such a trivial melody and spend years on it? I had to know why. What was it that Beethoven saw in this insignificant waltz?''
Enter Fonda, returning to Broadway for the first time in 46 years to play Dr. Katherine Brandt, a Beethoven expert who sets out to solve this musical mystery. Katherine travels to Bonn, Germany, to study the sketchbooks of the Diabelli Variations in the Beethoven archive there.
The musical detective story is well told, with scenic design that makes clever use of projections of Beethoven's notations and Walsh's playing of the music. Unfortunately, Kaufman has given the story a maudlin twist: Katherine is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and winds up in a wheelchair. Much of the play concerns the troubled relationship between the musicologist and her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis), anxious that Katherine is not taking care of herself. To give the story a love interest, Clara, a costume designer, is falling for her mother's male nurse (Colin Hanks).
To take things completely over the top, there is a parallel story of Beethoven writing the variations, with Zach Grenier playing the composer; Erik Steele playing his biographer, Anton Schindler; and Don Amendolia playing the publisher Diabelli, all in period dress, all chewing the scenery to beat the band.
Plainly restrained Jane
The mediocrity of Kaufman's play is surprising, coming from the author of such excellent works as The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. For all the dedication the playwright brought to the project, which included extensive workshopping and a pre-Broadway production at Arena Stage in Washington, 33 Variations is tiresomely formulaic. With its terminally ill academic, the play resembles Wit, which is about a professor dying of cancer; and the comedy-drama arc of the mother-daughter-daughter's-boyfriend dynamic in 33 Variations is reminiscent of Proof, which features a mathematician father, his daughter and her boyfriend. Kaufman's play is like a made-for-TV disease-of-the-week soap opera, better suited to Jane Seymour than Jane Fonda.
So the main interest of 33 Variations comes down to Fonda, and what this production adds, if anything, to her resume. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson laments the unfulfilled potential of her "uncoordinated career,'' and that seems exactly the right assessment of an actor now known as much for her father and husbands, her political activism and her workout tapes as for her movies. Fonda's portrayal of call girl Bree Daniels in Klute was a landmark of the 1970s, and maybe her return to Broadway will reawaken interest in that and her riveting performance in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Neither movie was carried by a couple of Blockbuster outlets where I looked for them recently.)
It's a kick to see Fonda onstage, but her performance as Katherine is much too restrained, a formidable, unyielding and tightly controlled portrayal of an emotionally distant woman. At 71, she looks fabulous, her sculpted cheekbones and erect carriage as impressive as ever, but she lacks theatrical gusto — the shameless hamminess needed to bring her hackneyed character to life. It's hard to believe that the woman who once played the comic sci-fi sex kitten of Barbarella is guilty of such stiff-necked dignity.
Actually, the highlight of 33 Variations is the playing of Walsh, who has given recitals in the Tampa Bay area at Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center. Her CD of the Diabelli Variations on the JDR label is a hot seller at the theater, and for good reason. But something is wrong when the piano player outshines the star.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.