Von Herzen – möge es wieder – zu Herzen gehen – Beethoven wrote this at the head of the score of his tremendous Missa Solemnis. Since then, it has become a famous Beethovenian quote – and one I am willing to quote when I write about Venezuelan playwright Moisés Kaufman’s new play, 33 Variations. Everybody who likes music is eternally fascinated by the character of Beethoven, the man who loved mankind but was not really fond of people, the paramount composer who mastered his own limitations in god-given inspiration and, out of his own intelligence and skill, sublimed it in the most powerful example of originality and assurance.
Kaufman’s play is bold as his theme – this is no biopic, it is a play about a piece of music, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. As it is no lecture either, there is a plot to lead us through. Dr. Katherine Brandt is a musicologist specialised in Beethoven. She is seriously ill and her last book reflects her own perplexity with the fact that the great Beethoven spent so much energy and time working on such mediocre musical material such as Anton Diabelli’s waltz. She can only understand it if the point was to prove that genius can transcend mediocrity – Beethoven would be mocking Diabelli by showing the difference between them (if you saw Amadeus, you are probably thinking in the scene when Mozart plays Salieri’s piece and rewrites it). But to prove her argument, she has to fly to Bonn in order to study the sketches and read through Beethoven’s many “fingerprints” on the score (shoplists and soup stains included). The problem is that her incapacitating disease makes it difficult for the independent Dr. Brandt to go further without the help of her daughter Clara, whose incapability to settle in life is a source of disappointment for such an accomplished mother, of Mike, her nurse who soon becomes Clara’s boyfriend, and Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the Beethoven-Haus’s scholar responsible for the Diabelli Variations’ autographs. While the story unfolds, actors in the roles of Beethoven, Diabelli and Anton Schindler show us scenes relevant to Dr. Brandt’s studies.
I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that the plot is a bit contrived, that short scenes follow each other vertiginously, that many unnecessary situations exist for the purpose of mere entertainment… well, let’s use some musical expressions, that some transitions are forced, that the development of the main subjects are marred by the interruption by irrelevant material… but (and this is a significant but) this is a small drawback considering that this play hits home in such difficult aspects that its liabilities are far less important than its assets. Kaufman has a talent to explain music to the layman without underestimating his intelligence – it is impossible to leave the theatre without learning anything about musical composition and structure. More than this, this learning is never done from the cold point-of-view of a laboratory research but from the perspective of expressive possibilities, i.e., from the way it will affect the listener, which is the point-of-view of the relationship between composer and audience. In a certain way, 33 Variations is a work of love of a writer and a piece of music the aim of which is to show the depth of emotion and ideas that Beethoven has built just for your ears, minds and hearts. In this sense, some important discussions about the art of music are made in a light but serious way during the play – and I believe that Dr. Brandt’s conclusions in the end of the play could reveal a new world of discoveries for many of those who have only skated on the surface of music so far.
Kaufman is also the director of the play – the whole staging is most ingenious – panels covered with sheet music over which images are projected in order to portray a subway station, a hospital etc. Behind them, bookshelves with files that represent either the archives in Bonn or Diabelli’s studio in Vienna. I am not so sure if the direction of actors is so efficient as the staging itself. I have the impression that the idea was to build clearly defined set characters – the irascible genius, the vain dilettant, the efficient woman, the problematic daughter, the always-ready-to-help boyfriend, the objective German etc – and that was it. Although a group of very good actors have been assembled, the proceedings never goes really beyond superficiality – and some stage gestures are a bit artifficial too, such as having characters speaking the same lines at the same time or having the cast sing an excerpt of the Missa Solemnis’s Kyrie after someone not particularly religious says “May God take pity on us”. Maybe if the casting involved the kind of actors who galvanize whatever they touch regardless of directing, that would have done the trick. As it is, Jane Fonda was a good choice for Dr. Brandt – she is a congenial, enthusiastic actress with a larger-than-life personality who is not afraid to reach out for the public in the more explanatory scenes. I am not really convinced by Samantha Mathis’s Clara – her performance tends to press the same key throughout and the vulnerability, the charm and the bitchiness come through more or less in one same shape. Susan Kellermann is a funny Dr. Ladenburger, helped by a stereotypic “German” attitude and Zach Grenier survives the checklist of conventional Beethovenian attitudes. Colin Hanks, Don Amendolia and Erik Steele offer efficient performances in the roles of Mike, Diabelli and Schindler. In any case, if you are in New York and you like Beethoven, you should not miss this.