|Paula Plum faces the infinite in 33 Variations.|
Sigh! The Vanya on 42nd Street Effect has struck again!
What's that effect, you may ask? Well actually, that's just my shorthand for the perceptual gap that persists between those theatre-goers who simply "want to see a show" and those for whom the theatre has become a kind of lifestyle.
In a word, the kind of people who might be quite familiar with plays like Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, or Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, or Margaret Edson's Wit - of which Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations (at the Lyric Stage through Feb. 2) often feels like a muddled variation.
If you haven't seen those plays, of course, then Kaufman's concoction will go down easy. It will seem, well, funny and sad, as they say - if a little vague, but never actually confusing or incompetent. You may not be able to tell quiiite what Kaufman is getting at, but if you're the trusting type, you'll remain confident that he must be getting at something.
And you'll certainly notice that the production in general is quite fine. The leading lady (at left) is often superb, in fact, as is most of the supporting cast. And the design is elegant - even sleek; and a sharp set of projections gives everything a clean, high-tech sheen.
But on the other hand, if you ARE familiar with plays like Arcadia or Amadeus or Wit, then 33 Variations may feel like - well - a clumsy stab into a kind of dramatic Bermuda triangle defined by those earlier Broadway hits.
Moisés Kaufman is famous, of course, for brilliant documentary pastiches like The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency, in which he shaped mountains of testimony into gripping theatrical landscapes. So his ambition to write a play based on dialogue rather than documentation is entirely understandable. It just doesn't justify a first attempt that flirts constantly with conceptual plagiarism.
Kaufman's central conceit is to track a mystery - not about Mozart or Lord Byron (they've been done!) - but about Beethoven, in particular the genesis of the great composer's "Diabelli Variations," a late suite of 33 variations (often called the greatest ever written) drawn from a sturdy but unremarkable waltz by one Anton Diabelli, a music publisher and friend of the grand Ludwig van. At first rejected by the composer, the project eventually came to absorb him; indeed, he spent four years teasing out 33 different pieces from seemingly every aspect of Diabelli's quotidian theme. Why?
(That's the Amadeus part.)
But Kaufman also wants to focus on the declining health of one Dr. Katherine Brandt (Paula Plum), a driven musicologist who's bent on solving that particular musical mystery, even at the expense of ignoring her gentle, directionless daughter. And even though her health is in a nosedive as she succumbs to the ravages of ALS (what many still call "Lou Gehrig's Disease").
(That's the Wit part.)
AND there's Katherine's research itself - an intriguing journey through stained scores and lost letters and the dungeons of a music library in Bonn, guarded by an arch Germanic dragon-lady (Maureen Keiller). This musicological Smaug turns out to have a heart as well as a hoard of gold, of course, and as Katherine draws closer and closer to her goal, we can perceive poignant parallels between her lonely struggles and Beethoven's battle against encroaching deafness.
(That's the Arcadia part.)
Okay, you could maybe argue that the play succeeds as a Venn diagram; but alas, as Kaufman shows little actual dramatic ability, I'm afraid that minute-to-minute it remains a puzzlement. The seeming harmonies between Brandt and Beethoven never coalesce into anything like a theme - perhaps because the historical parallels really aren't that close (and Kaufman paints a cartoonish Beethoven anyway). Beyond that, the playwright seems ham-strung by his own documentarian nature. The play comes most to life when it visits that music library - but this only reminds us that the Laramie Project and its ilk succeeded because we understood the actual drama buried within their documentation. Here there's a kind of void, however, that the playwright must fill; yet we get very few solid scenes, much less anything like a rising action or climax.
|Will McGarrahan, Victor Shopov, Maureen Keiller and Paula Plum - Photo(s): Mark S. Howard.|
Of course we do get to hear some Beethoven (from the talented pianist Catherine Stornetta, who tickles the ivories center stage), and Kaufman offers a nice warm bath in sweet, life-lesson clichés like "Lighten up!" and "Stop and smell the roses!" Which is all well and good. I get the impression, however, that Kaufman thinks he has actually written a set of "variations" (he has penned 33 scenes, of course), which is a little confusing. Does he understand what a variation really is? The "Diabelli Variations," for instance, are great because they almost ruthlessly dig into every aspect of Diabelli's banal little melody; Beethoven plays with the rhythm or the harmonic structure or the dynamic of just about every measure. It's a brilliant work of sustained musical archaeology; it's no mystery why it held his interest for four years.
But Kaufman pulls almost nothing from beneath the obviously tragic surface of Ms. Brandt's plight. He seems to think that simply interlacing modern scenes with period ones can count as a form of "variation" - or at least as a form of dance. This does make for pretty stage images (see masthead) - if only it were also true!
Luckily, at the Lyric, the cast is often so strong that they sustain a sensitive mood without much actual dramatic support. No, Ms. Plum can't really supply the lines to illuminate her relationship with her daughter - but she does give the brittle Ms. Brandt a subtly poignant bravery. Indeed, her no-nonsense portrayal of the devastating facts of ALS is quite heartbreaking; you just feel she could do it all by herself, sans Kaufman. And as her closest companion in her last days, that German dragon-lady, Maureen Keiller is perhaps even better; wryly hilarious and subtly moving - and with an accent that's gloriously extended without ever quite tipping into parody - she expertly dodges the clichés that pothole the part.
There's strong work elsewhere in the cast as well - Will McGarrahan makes a devilishly genial Diabelli, and local hottie Kelby T. Akin once again struts his technically-accomplished stuff as, well, the play's goofy hottie. I didn't feel newcomer Dakota Shepard had quite enough oomph as Brandt's long-suffering daughter, but she had the right kind of presence, and the obviously talented Victor Shopov did what he could with the underwritten part of Beethoven's secretary. The one gap in the cast, I'm afraid, proved to be the great man himself; the playwright hasn't done actor James Andreassi any favors with this blowsy portrait of Beethoven, but unlike his fellow performers, Andreassi seemed unable to find any way to redeem the weak writing.
Oh, well! I'm happy to add that the rest of the production was generally first-class. Director Spiro Veloudos did some of his subtlest work in recent memory with Plum and Keiller, and clearly knew to keep things moving elsewhere. Meanwhile Cristina Todesco's nearly-abstract scenic design was among the most sophisticated I've seen at the Lyric - and served as a striking frame for Shawn Boyle's intriguing projections - while Charles Schoonmaker's elegant costumes were always appropriate. The high level of craft almost made you wonder - how far could this talented team go with a truly great play?