Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations was inspired by Ludwig von Beethoven’s piano work of the same name, and in one of the play’s joys, we get to hear a fair amount of the 50-minute piece. (In the original this was done with a live pianist; this production by Silver Spring Stage—seen by this reviewer on Saturday night, February 28—contains recorded, but still glorious, music).
We also get to know many of the challenges in Beethoven’s life—some of which are probably well-known to music lovers (and beyond): his growing (and finally, total) deafness; his rages; his isolation from people, yet the loyalty he won by some in his orbit, including Anton Schindler, his student and biographer.
The audience … seemed enthused both by the music [of Beethoven] and the strong personalities of both the fictionalized Beethoven and Brandt.
As told in the play, in 1819, Beethoven began a set of variations to a waltz—often considered inconsequential—written by a music publisher named Diabelli. While other composers responded with one variation, the master eventually went on to write 33, over the course of four years.
Premiering on Broadway in 2009—actually two years after it opened in DC—the play has a complex structure: The action switches back and forth between Beethoven’s time and the present. Moreover the characters, still dressed in their 19th century clothing, often enter the action in contemporary times.
Kaufman also uses a familiar technique for him (he is best known for the dramatic works, The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde) of having multiple characters recite the same lines.
The play is about the devotion to art, but more than that it concerns obsession. Beethoven labors on in spite of the loss of his hearing and the anger at his fate and a few previous years of declining interest on the part of the public.
The main contemporary character in 33 Variations, the play, is a musicologist named Katherine Brandt, who feels compelled to discover the reason the composer felt compelled to write 33 distinct variations, rather than the one Diabelli had asked for. Her challenges are ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), which is progressing rapidly and her strained relationship with her daughter.
There are fascinating aspects to 33 Variations, but also a few disappointing ones. I’ll leave it to audience members to judge, but it seems to me that after Brandt’s intensive search for answers, the playwright’s conclusion about Beethoven’s almost-demonic composing is disappointing.
But no matter. The audience the night I reviewed seemed enthused both by the music and the strong personalities of both the fictionalized Beethoven and Brandt.
Much of the enthusiasm derives from the effective direction by Natalia Gleason, which does justice to both the comic and poignant aspects and the time/place changes of the script. I could also find much satisfaction in the memorable performances by Yvonne Paretzky and Joseph Mariano as Brandt and Beethoven respectively.
Paretzsky is determined, stubborn, blind when it comes to her relationship with daughter, and expressive in a way that will stay with you.
Mariano has to act up a storm as the irascible, irrational, and immensely talented composer who has become the symbol of the “romantic and mad artist.” He does so.
An attractive Karen Elle, portraying Clara, the musicologist’s daughter, is affecting in her struggle to deal with her mother’s illness and their alienation.
Donta Hensley is funny as her initially awkward would-be boyfriend (and Brandt’s nurse) who later proves to be a tower of strength to her (He’s also a mean dancer).
Sandy Irving plays the impatient Anton Diabelli—who can’t imagine what is taking Beethoven so long to complete these variations (or understand why he feels the need to write so many). Some of the play’s strong moments take place between him and Mario Font, as the hapless Anton Schindler, as they negotiate over Beethoven’s completion of the work. Font palpably shows the reaction of a man who is both desperately needed and humiliated.
Malinda K. Smith offers a perfect German accent as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, who helps Brandt access the riches of the Beethoven Archive in Bonn. It is the playwright’s fault, not hers, that the character changes so quickly from annoyed to sympathetic. But Smith does a good job at both.
Vanessa Terzaghi is assistant director, while Rob Allen and Alika Codispoti divide responsibilities as stage managers.
Lighting design is by Steve Deming, and set design/master carpentry is by Eric Henry. Kristina Martin designed the costumes, which include both contemporary and Beethoven-era clothing and a wig.
Advisory: There are a few inappropriate moments. For ages 18 and over.
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes long with a 10-minute intermission.
33 Variations continues through March 21, 2015, at Silver Spring Stage, Woodmoor Shopping Center, 10145 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20901. Tickets are available at (301) 593-6036, or click here.