Here's the mystery: In 1819, Anton Diabelli, a music publisher, wrote an undistinguished little waltz and asked the top composers of Vienna each to write a variation on it. Beethoven at first demurred, but then changed his tune, became obsessed with the project, and over the course of four years wrote 33 variations on the theme, even while he was finishing more significant works. Why did the master waste his time on the trifle?
That's what Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), an aging musicologist, sets out to discover. She's racing with her own internal time bomb, as Lou Gehrig's disease takes over her body. Her frustratedly dutiful daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) is staunchly opposed to Mom's pilgrimage to Vienna-and is left behind, with her mother's nurse Mike (Colin Hanks) who's become besotted with her. Nearly everyone in Moises Kaufman's new drama is passionately seeking something, and as their desires work at cross-purposes, Brandt grows ever-closer to success-and death.
When it comes to staging the passion and pageantry of Brandt's abstract-sounding quest, 33 Variations succeeds spectacularly. As we see the composer's scrawled drafts screened across the set (all to the excellent accompaniment of pianist Diane Walsh) or the emotional climaxes brilliantly orchestrated at each act's end, the ecstasy and emotion behind the mathematical precision and intellectual rigor come into sharp, startling focus. The more human subplots aren't always so successful. Against Derek McLane's evocative set of rows and rows of artfully-lit ledger boxes, the play juxtaposes the contemporary characters with the progress of the aged, infirm Beethoven (Zach Grenier ) himself as he works on the variations, growing progressively feebler and deafer as he goes. The parallels between the two can be clunky, and some of the more conventional stories-the fraught mother-daughter tensions, even the romance developing between Mike and Clara-feel sentimental and diminished. But their failings highlight the play's true fascination with the less traditional, more academic passions, from the slow, steadfast friendship between the pragmatic Austrian professor Ladenburger (Susan Kellermann) and the prickly Brandt, and, of course, Beethoven's own fascination with Diabelli's waltz.
It's an ambitious work of intertwined strands, and in the end it's the exemplary performances that breathe life into the stratospheric structure: Grenier is irascible and manipulative as the canny composer, while Hanks is charming as the diffident caregiver turned suitor. Kellermann shines as the frosty academic who warms slowly to her colleague's unspoken need. And Fonda is truly stellar in her return, after decades, to the Broadway stage, never giving in to the sentimentality of the situation, but maintaining her character's brisk defensiveness even on the brink of death. It's finally the strength of purpose and impatience with her own frailty that Fonda brings to Brandt that connect her to the composer far more than any mystery about why Diabelli's ditty obsessed him. Why did he spend his waning years on trivialities? Why does she? What else is there?