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Play explores why Beethoven was so ‘fonda’ Diabelli

 By Cynthia Citron      

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — Someone recently referred to Jane Fonda in print as an “old lady.”  Huh?  In my view, this would be a far more beautiful world if everyone looked as good in their 50s as Fonda does in her 70s. What’s more, the girl’s still got it in the acting department. Old lady, indeed!  Harrumph!

Fonda is currently lighting up the stage at the Ahmanson in playwright/director Moises Kaufman’s brilliant 33 Variations.  Fresh from Broadway with most of its original ensemble cast, the play probes the question of why Ludwig van Beethoven spent so many years composing variations on a simplistic waltz by Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli (played here by an ebullient Don Amendolia).

 Fonda plays a musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, who becomes as obsessed by this question as Beethoven was about the Variations.  She travels to Bonn, Beethoven’s birthplace and the city where his archives are stored, to determine his motivation for devoting four years—from 1819 to 1823—on this exercise.

As the play switches in time from the present back to the 19th century, Beethoven appears in all his irascible intensity.  Zach Grenier, as Beethoven, plays the iconic composer in his final years, and he does it with an irritable panache that strikes just the right tone for the deaf and dying genius.

In this period of his life Beethoven is attended by Anton Schindler (Grant James Varjas), his pretentious factotum and subsequent biographer.  Schindler, who introduces himself to everyone as “friend of Beethoven,” got much of it wrong, as Brandt soon discovers.

Brandt is aided in her research by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman), the keeper of the archives.  Disdainful at first of Brandt and her mission, Ladenburger soon becomes her staunch ally and friend.  Neither woman has a warm and fuzzy persona, and their relationship rests on their professional expertise and growing mutual respect.

 Brandt’s quest is made more compelling because she knows her time is limited.  She is dying, painfully, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  And her daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) is anxious to bring her home for care.  She follows her mother to Bonn, accompanied by Mike Clark (Greg Keller), a sweet and self-effacing male nurse.  The mother-daughter relationship is prickly and provides a diverting, if brief, subplot to the main activity.

The main activity, the composition of the Variations, comes to breathtaking life by the ministrations of concert pianist Diane Walsh, who plays each new entry as Beethoven or Brandt exuberantly explains the intricacies of the piece.  In a beautifully climactic scene, the two centuries overlap, with everyone declaiming in harmony, all of one mind.

The production qualities of this play are outstanding.  The sets by Derek McLane, the lighting by David Lander, and the lush sound by Andre J. Pluess, are matched in ingenuity by the exquisite costumes designed by Janice Pytel and David C. Woolard.

Brandt, after speculating throughout the play about Beethoven’s motives—was he showing off?  making fun of Diabelli’s composition?  trying to one-up Bach’s 32 Goldberg variations?—finally comes to her own conclusions.  And here the play becomes a little airy-fairy.  The conclusion may be reasonable, but it becomes preachy in the telling.

 As renowned pianist and authority on Beethoven, Alfred Brendel, has written: “(Diabelli’s) theme has ceased to reign over its unruly offspring. Rather, the variations decide what the theme may have to offer them. Instead of being confirmed, adorned and glorified, it is improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, stamped out and finally uplifted.”

 In the end, you may be convinced, or not.  But in any case, 33 Variations is an entertaining and engaging production—well written and well directed by the inventive Michael Kaufman, beautifully enhanced by pianist Diane Walsh, and elegantly performed by the vibrant Jane Fonda.  Old lady indeed!

33 Variations will continue at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through March 6th.  Call (213) 972-4400 for tickets.

Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief of San Diego Jewish World

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