Whatever else you may think of the elaborate theatrical collage Moisés Kaufman has assembled to explain Beethoven’s creation of an influential masterwork from an “insignificant” waltz by Anton Diabelli, the world premiere of 33 Variations is indisputably ravishing to listen to and to watch. If the show engages the intellect less fully than the senses, well, that’s a failing certainly, but one it seems almost churlish to bring up as the ringing in Beethoven’s ears is made audible, the anguish of Lou Gehrig’s disease is made flesh, and as 19th-century concert halls engage in a choreographed minuet with 21st-century hospital wards.
Staged by Kaufman over the summer even as the script was taking its final shape in his head, 33 Variations emerges at Arena Stage as a symphony of light and shadow, a ballet of pirouetting sketchbooks and flapping sheet music, a vocal chorale in which themes assert themselves and are then amplified, restated, and augmented until they form a sort of harmonic convergence of academic and musical theory.
But if there’s much to see and hear—and yes, to ponder—in this new drama by the author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, Kaufman is examining less earth-shaking matters this time, and dealing with them in ways that feel more than a tad schematic.
To investigate a musical mystery—why Beethoven, after refusing a commission to write a single variation on a trivial waltz, then devoted several years to creating 33 of them—the playwright imagines a fictional scholar and endows her with a progressive muscle disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) to match Beethoven’s progressive hearing loss. The parallel is intriguing—both composer and scholar will remain intellectually capable even as he loses the ability to hear his work, and she loses the ability to articulate hers. Placed side by side in overlapping scenes, Beethoven (Graeme Malcolm) and Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) appear to be engaged in nearly identical races against time.
Alas, having found a clever device to bind his characters together across two centuries, Kaufman can’t resist piling on a few too many variations. He gives Brandt hangers-on who more or less match those surrounding Beethoven: a supportive librarian and a nurse to parallel the composer’s protective amanuensis; a needy daughter to match the composer’s demanding music publisher. Psychological connections match up too, with 19th- and 21st-century characters using nearly identical phrasing to describe isolation within the creative process, helplessness at illness, or worries about the terra incognita into which artists and scholars must venture. Restaurant chatter links up with soup stains on manuscripts; delays in composition with delays in medical treatment. Everything is twinned—even a wordless concert date that’s narrated not once but twice so we can hear what each participant is thinking. It’s clever, but it’s also so insistent that the underlying structure starts to seem overly pat.
Which is not to deny the effectiveness of the performers—Greg Keller as a socially and physically clumsy nurse, Susan Kellermann’s briskly compassionate archivist, Peil’s increasingly fragile scholar—or of the numerous bravura sequences Kaufman has orchestrated for them. At one point, Malcolm’s cranky, cantankerous composer, swept away by his own 32nd variation (played stageside by an apparently indefatigable Diane Walsh) starts to narrate it for the audience, correcting key and tempi as the pianist modifies her playing, noting when the music should be subdued and fuguelike, and when it must soar in the style of Handel: “three subjects simultaneously, and a constantly running theme…and now bring it back higher…crescendo…fortissimo.”
Original? Well, not entirely. Amadeus and Sunday in the Park With George have similar moments. But is it transporting? Absolutely. And so is the minuet with which Kaufman ends the evening—a tribute partly to the grace and synergy of what’s come before, and partly to the trivial little nothing of a waltz, of which both a composer and a playwright, have been making so much ado.