As a huge fan of Moises Kaufman's work, it was with great expectations that I attended his recent, original opus 33 Variations playing the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The story of a musicologist who specializes in Beethoven as she deals with her impending debilitating disease has been overshadowed by the fact that the work marks the return of Jane Fonda to the Broadway stage after a 46 year hiatus. Although, most people are only concerned with Fonda's performance (or how good she looks), I was actually interested in seeing the play. For the record, Ms. Fonda looks as good on stage as she does off, but the play leaves much to be desired.
The concept is interesting, but not unique. The entire piece feels like an amalgamation of other (and better written) works. The theme of a main character's plight to balance her career with her fatal disease is better realized and more fully explored in Margaret Edson's Wit, which won the Pulitzer for the one-time playwright. The flashback scenes detailing Beethoven's own physical demise can't help but be compared to Amadeus. And the sub-plot love affair between the musicologist's daughter and her nurse hearkens many cheesy, contemporary romances - one scene in a movie theatre is so eye-rolling that it can only be compared to the drive-in scene in Grease. The show is an amalgamation of uneven moments none of which comprise a solid evening of theatre.
Now, for what everyone wants to know: Ms. Fonda does an admirable job. She is especially adept at the physical demise of her character as she succumbs to Lou Gherig's disease (oops, is that a plot spoiler? I hope not). However, Fonda has made her claim as a passionate and fiery actress; a cerebral and methodical musicologist is casting against her well-worn grain. In the second act, when her demeanor is slipping, she is allowed to show the passion and fury that is her signature and in this moment she shines. But for the rest of the play, one cannot help but feel she is playing against type. The second most memorable moment in the play is a non-verbal sequence where her character is undergoing X-rays and the flashes of light reveal her body slowly disintegrating in on itself. This moment was a brilliant use of physical acting and stage technology.
The MOST memorable moment of the play does not come from Ms. Fonda, but from Zach Grenier as Beethoven. He has a monologue - which is really a dialogue with the live pianist who plays Beethoven's works throughout the show to aurally illustrate the subject matter - that is Tony worthy. Mr. Grenier's performance is sublime across the board, but in this one moment he captures the passion of music, the limitations of words, and the inspiration of genius. Mr. Grenier's performance is nothing less than genius and if he is overlooked for the Tony Award, it will be a shame. It is so refreshing to see a quality performance on Broadway by an honest-to-God stage actor as opposed to celebrity pandering of most Broadway shows (including this one). Mr. Grenier's performance may not sell as many tickets as Ms. Fonda's name, but I guarantee that more people will remember his Beethoven over Ms. Fonda's... what was the name of her character again?
The supporting also falls into celebrity pandering with Tom Hanks' son, Colin, playing the nurse and love interest to the daughter played by Samantha Mathis. Both of these actors did a serviceable job in under-written and under-developed characters. The only other actor worthy of mention was Susan Kellerman who made the most out of a least-written character based on the stereotypical German empiricist.
The most stunning aspect of this production was Beethoven's music played live by Diane Walsh. Although the plot was not original, the inclusion of a live musician who interprets and interacts with the plot is fresh and lively. In an era when musicals sequester their orchestras, it was refreshing to have the musician as a tertiary character in the plot. For all its faults, I feel this is the most satisfying aspect of the performance: to connect a human story with historical evidence as performed by a live musician. Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Project has been devoted to documentary theatre and exploring the fact/presentation dichotomy. I applaud this latest endeavor, but hope that they will return to employing stage actors and investigative documentary work rather than selling-out to Broadway standards.