It's been 46 years since Jane Fonda last graced a Broadway stage, in the 1963 flop Strange Interlude. Besides the fact that she worked steadily in Hollywood for most of the years since then, maybe Fonda was holding out for just the right project. If so, she chose wisely when she said yes to Moises Kaufman's 33 Variations. Her role is rich, demanding, and has enough emotional ups and downs to let the two-time Oscar winner show off her dramatic range. Kaufman's play isn't perfect- his dialogue can be cliched, and at times he overstates the obvious. But his direction is so smooth that one almost doesn't notice.
Fonda-now 71 and looking very fit-plays Dr. Katherine Brandt, a musicologist who is trying to figure out why Ludwig van Beethoven devoted so much time at the end of his career to his "Diabelli" Variations. Instead of writing one variation on Anton Diabelli's simple waltz, the composer became consumed with the project and wrote 33 variations. Katherine is baffled by his obsession with the waltz and goes to Bonn, Germany, to examine the composer's papers and sketchbooks for clues.
Kaufman (The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde) plays up the parallels between Beethoven and Katherine. Both are obsessed, and both are running out of time in their careers due to illness. Beethoven's declining health included the gradual loss of his hearing, and Katherine has learned that she has Lou Gehrig's disease (meaning that her motor skills will deteriorate but her mind will remain sharp). An archivist (Susan Kellermann) becomes her friend and collaborator. Katherine's daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) moves to Bonn to help out, but she and her mother aren't particularly close. Clara also strikes up a romance with Katherine's nurse, Mike (Colin Hanks).
Kaufman doesn't just have Katherine analyze the "Diabelli" Variations and have a pianist (Diane Walsh) plays excerpts. He moves the action back and forth between the present and 1819 and 1823, imagining the backstory of Beethoven (Zach Grenier), his assistant Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), and music publisher Diabelli (Don Amendolia). The shifts between the two eras are handled seamlessly, thanks in part to Derek McLane's adaptable set of file cabinets and manuscripts on wheels.
When the characters in the past and present echo one another with the same dialogue, the parallels are too heavyhanded. And at times the music analysis sounds like it's coming from a book, not a person.
Despite the occasionally clunky line, however, Kaufman makes what could be a dry tale of musical scholarship surprisingly compelling. Katherine's erudite remarks about the Variations, accompanied by Walsh on the piano, give a sense of Beethoven's genius. Amadeus, the Broadway hit about Mozart and his less talented rival, Salieri, comes to mind more than once.
But that isn't to say that 33 Variations is derivative. Kaufman's concept and themes are original, and he expertly interweaves the fictional story of Katherine with the fact-based scenes about Beethoven. As a director Kaufman has a distinctive style, and this production is as fluid and elegant as The Laramie Project.
While 33 Variations doesn't pack the emotional punch Laramie did, it is certainly a smart, engaging play. And who knows, it may even inspire the once-retired Fonda to do more theater. Watching her assured performance, one would never know that nearly half a century has passed since she last acted on Broadway.