33 Variations

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This is Anthony Byrnes "Opening the Curtain" on LA Theater for KCRW.

The heart of Moises Kaufman’s new play “33 Variations” comes about 2/3 of the way through.  The audience finds themselves alone with Beethoven and his music.  To the side of the stage is a pianist beginning to play Beethoven’s Variation #32 on a grand piano.  Center stage, Beethoven, played with fanatic genius by Zach Grenier, is struggling to compose.  The scene is one part music lecture and one part joyous voyeurism as we catch Beethoven in the moment of his creation; he struggles to find the right form, the right key, the right tempo - we hear the piano progress through the fugue, in E flat major, double time with Beethoven conducting our understanding of the music as much as the music itself.  In that moment, we hear the piece with completely different ears and understand Beethoven’s passion in a new light.  It’s absolutely thrilling.

Like Francois Girard’s brilliant “32 Short Films about Glenn Gould” or Simon McBurney’s transporting “The Noise of Time” about Shostakovich - “33 Variations” steers the audience into a piece of music.  In this case, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, one of his last works and arguably one of the most stunning piano works ever written.

The variations themselves began as something of a marketing gimmick.   A music publisher and composer named Anton Diabelli came up with the scheme in 1819.  He composed a short waltz and invited 51 composers to pen variations that he’d then publish in one volume - kind of like the first all-star album of cover songs.  Beethoven responded to the commission with not one variation but with 33.  It consumed him for three full years.

Director slash playwright Moises Kaufman uses Beethoven’s obsession as the theme.  In his words “this play is not a reconstruction of a historical event: rather, it’s a series of variations on a moment in a life.”

The tricky thing with staging history is: What’s the audience’s way in?  In Moises Kaufman’s previous work that doorway to the past has been the documents and testimony of the witnesses.  In “Gross Indecency,” about the trial of Oscar Wilde, the structure was a brilliant cut and juxtaposed series of Wilde’s writing and actual courtroom testimony.

There’s some of that in “33 Variations,” but it’s closer in form to a traditional play.  And I wish I could say that “33 Variations” was as successful artistically as his previous work.  

Kaufman’s way into the past this time is a terminally ill musicologist, played by Jane Fonda, who becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s obsession.  She desperately needs to know what was going on in Beethoven’s mind when he composed the variations.  But while we successfully get caught up in her passion for Beethoven, we don’t really find out that much about her.  And that’s a problem because she’s the character we spend the night with.  The result is a play that feels like it should be more emotional than it is.  

That said, to have moment alone with Beethoven and his music - that makes it all worth it.

“33 Variations” plays at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown LA through March 6th.

For info on the show text the word “curtain” to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes "Opening the Curtain" on LA theatre for KCRW.



“33 Variations” plays at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown LA through March 6th.
Tickets: 213.972.4400