March 14, 2009

"33 Variations" Hits the Right Notes for Me

One of the problems with casting a really big-name star in a play is the risk that so much attention will be focused on the star—how does she look? can she hold her own with the other actors? should we clap when she enters? and what was that thing that they were saying about her in the gossip column the other day?—that the audience will never settle down and surrender itself to the story unfolding on stage.

So you can imagine the challenge when the star is Jane Fonda, the iconic figure who has been stirring up all sorts of questions and emotions for nearly five decades and who, at the age of 71, has returned to the stage for the first time in 46 years as the lead in 33 Variations, the new drama that opened this past week at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

Moisés Kaufman, who wrote and directed the play, knows what he’s up against and he deals with it he
ad on. Right at the beginning of the play, Fonda simply walks onstage and stands there for a moment, allowing the audience time to applaud, to gawk (she looks damn good), and to forget about the one or two Vietnam vets across the street from the theater futilely protesting the trip she made to Hanoi 40 years ago.

I’m a Fonda fan from way back (I loved her first movie, “Tall Story;” 1971’s “Klute” is one of my all-time favorites; I can still hear her voice in my ear from the hours I spent going for the burn as I exercised to her workout tapes and I consider her 2005 memoir “My Life So Far” a classic of the genre) so when Fonda spoke her first lines somewhat softly at the performance I attended, I started to worry that maybe she wouldn’t be able to hold her own. But, of course, there was no reason to fret. Fonda is one of our finest actors and she delivers an elegant performance—her diction is crisp, her physicality detailed, her intelligence sharp.

She plays Kat
herine Brandt, a tough-minded but ailing musicologist who is trying to figure out why Beethoven spent so much time towards the end of his life writing 33 variations of a brief and inconsequential waltz composed by his publisher as a kind of marketing gimmick. The story shifts back and forth between the present (Brandt’s race against time to solve the mystery and the sorting out of her troubled relationship with the daughter who doesn’t quite live up to her standards) and the past (Beethoven’s race against time to compose as he is going deaf and his dealings with his publisher and amanuensis, neither of whom quite approaches his standards). At times, the actors in the separate stories appear on stage simultaneously and even say the same lines, underscoring the fact that they are playing variations on a theme.

Sometimes it works. And sometimes it doesn’t. The storylines for previous Kaufman plays were structured around his interviews with people as with The Laramie Project about the ho
mophobia-inspired murder of 21 year-old Matthew Shepard or from documents and memoirs of eyewitness as with Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. But this one is largely drawn from his own imagination and that kind of writing doesn’t seems to be his strong suit.

Luckily, Kaufman has himself as director and he is a marvelous stager. Even when the story verges on the predictable, his theatrical stagecraft held my attention. He gets great support from Derek McLane’s smart and supple set and David Lander’s mood-enhancing lighting. And having the excellent pianist Diane Walsh play excerpts from the actual variations is a particularly wonderful touch.

Kaufman is a great caster too. Fonda radiates star power but 33 Variations isn't simply a star turn but an ensemble piece realized by several excellent performances. Zach Grenier is a little hammy as Beethoven but that is just what this role calls for and his up-to-but-not
-over-the-top shenanigans provide welcomed comic relief. Samantha Mathis is moving as the daughter, desperate to please a demanding mother. And Colin Hanks makes a lovely Broadway debut as the male nurse who falls for the daughter and is the modern-day fantasy of the guy we all want: totally supportive and absolutely unconditional with his love.

I confess I was rooting for Hanks. I once had lunch with him a few years ago when he was starring in the pilot of a TV show a friend wrote. One of the characters in the show—Hanks' nemesis, I’m sorry to say—was based on me and so we met to give him a sense of what a real-life pain I might be. ABC passed on the show but I’m glad to see that Hanks is still working and moving further out of the large shadow cast by his father Tom.

But, of course, most theatergoers will buy tickets to see Fonda. They won’t be disappointed. And don’t despair, if you can’t make it during the show’s limited run, which is scheduled to end on May 24. The tireless Fonda is blogging daily about the experience of being back on Broadway (click here to read what she has to say) and her jottings, no surprise, are just as entertaining as the show.


David Smith said...

I saw this play at the Arena theater in d.c. Different cast but moving with interersting things to say about creativity. I am looking forward to seeing how it has evolved since its original run

Sarah B. Roberts said...

AMEN AMEN AMEN! I really MUST see this play again. Of everything I've seen this season, this is the one that has really stayed with me.

Love the notation about a character being based on you - that's absolutely fabulous.