Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: 33 Variations

Review: 33 Variations

A Harmony of Music, Life, Purpose

By Lauren Yarger
Jane Fonda’s return to the stage, beautiful music, layered dialogue from playwright Moises Kaufman, the past and the present all join to strike a harmonic chord in 33 Variations playing at Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theater.

Fonda plays musicologist Katherine Brandt, diagnosed with a fatal degenerative disease and obsessed with using the time she has left to discover why Beethoven (Zach Grenier) wrote 33 variations of an insignificant waltz composed by his publisher, Anton Diabelli (Don Amendolia). She travels to Bonn, Germany where the original compositions are stored (in a wonderfully engineered set from Derek McLane which features a sumptuous music library with screens of the compositions (projection design Jeff Sugg) and stack upon stack of boxes, which when lighted in greens and bronze hues by David Lander, take on a treasure-box-like glow and draw in the color scheme from the theater itself, pulling the audience into the action on the stage.

The library’s caretaker, Gertrude Ladenburger (Susan Kellerman), is reluctant at first to entrust the works to Katherine, but their mutual admiration for Beethoven and Gertrude’s history of caring for an aunt who has the same illness soon forge a strong bond between the women. Kellerman’s nifty comedic timing and delivery of lines in a guttural German accent make for some lighter moments of relief in the play. Meanwhile, Katherine’s daughter Clara (Samantha Mathis) and her boyfriend Mike (Colin Hanks), who was Katherine’s nurse at home, follow her to Bonn. Mother and daughter try to find a way to breach the walls of an uneasy relationship. Katherine is critical of her daughter’s choices of boyfriends or career. The embodiment of variation, Clara is a “costume designer who excels at changing careers,” a trait perhaps emphasized by the show’s actual costume designer Janice Pytel since Clara’s clothes hardly reflect the taste one expect from someone with an artistic flair. Clara doesn’t know how to reach out, nicely made visible by Kaufman, who also directs, by physical distance and reluctance of the characters to touch.

Meanwhile, back in the 1800s, Beethoven frustrates his assistant Anton Schindler (Erik Steele) and Diabelli by continuing to write variations on the same waltz. It interferes with his work on the Ninth Symphony and Beethoven is fighting the clock any way as his hearing and health deteriorate. Past and present take place next to and around each other, sometimes transcending barriers. At the end of the first act, both Katherine and Beethoven join their voices in saying they need “more time to finish the work.” In a funny bit, Gertrude comes and takes a conversation book she and Katherine need for research out of the hands of Schindler as he is writing in it. In one of the most moving and beautiful moments on stage, Katherine, being X-rayed, and silhouetted against the blinding flash of the lights, leans back on Beethoven for support.

All of this becomes harmony with an intermittent underscore of the original waltz and some of the variations played by music director Diane Walsh, down stage right on a piano. As Katherine deteriorates (Fonda plays the physical limitations well, but looks pretty darn healthy), she finds new meaning in Beethoven’s work. Maybe he wasn’t just trying to mock the inferior composition, or trying to change it. Maybe he was transforming it into its better self and appreciating it for what it had to offer.

The ending of the story, complete with a minuet (choreography by Daniel Pelzig), is one of the most satisfying conclusions to a play I’ve ever seen.

33 Variations is at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, 230 W. 49th St., NY through May 24. For tickets call 212-239-6200.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sex Outside of Marriage
• Assisted Suicide discussion

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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