Friday, January 11, 2013

A variable "33 Variations"

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?


  1. What I never understand is why you spend so much time reviewing theater and film, which is bound to be disappointing, but not TV, which is thrilling. It's a golden era of TV, or at least I think so, and if you don't, you should be telling us why because it's pretty much the accepted wisdom right now.

    I love theater and film, but if I want to experience thrilling, edgy entertainment, I stay home and watch the boob tube. Almost nothing I see in the theaters matches the quality of what I see on TV, at least in terms of new work. And when I can't find anything American to watch, I go on Hulu Plus and watch the original versions of the series we ripped off--The Thick of It, Prisoners of War, Outnumbered, Borgen--and I wonder why anyone ever leaves their house.

  2. Yeah, I wish I could get on the TV bandwagon, but for some reason I just can't. I admire some cable series, like "Breaking Bad" or of course "The Wire" - and I agree cable (at least) is more sophisticated than television has ever been. But you know I never can hang with those series for very long, however good they are.

    And sorry, but they're really not like great novels. (They are NOT.) "The Wire" comes closest to the scope of a great book, but even it is a triumph of breadth over depth. I admit I am addicted to "Downton Abbey" these days, and with sincere affection, but I wouldn't compare it to a great play. The episodic structure of TV simply doesn't provide enough richness, I think. I couldn't listen to an hour of pop songs, either, although I get a kick out of a few pop songs as much as anybody else. But in the end, there's just no intellectual reach to the material. When I am most excited by a play, it is because I feel emotional states and intellectual stances moving like tectonic plates beneath the seeming surface of the drama. This is what makes Shakespeare and Chekhov and the other classics great. But I have to say I have never felt it in a television drama. Never, period.

    When I read television criticism, I notice this same problem in the writing, which is often extremely stylish, but relentlessly fore-grounded and flat. Take someone like Matthew Gilbert in the Globe - he has extremely refined mall-rat taste. EXTREMELY refined; he's the kind of person who can tell McDonald's fries from Burger King fries, and even write a whole essay about the difference. But you know hyper-observant high-school-clique-style judgments aren't really what theatre is about. Because they're not what life is about, either. They are what shopping is about.

    And I also have to say that I really do believe that the live presence of the performer is like nothing else. I'm not saying it's thrilling the way a trapeze act is thrilling - but it is moving in some deep way that is hard to define. The sensation of course is far more intense in the presence of greatness. Right now "Our Town" is the only truly great production in town, and you can definitely sense that feeling as it unfolds. It has something to do with the actual perception of the passage of time, and the perception of one's own participation in that shared passage. I've never felt that from even the greatest TV.


    1. I don’t think it does much good to ask whether TV is as good or great as a novel or stage play. Each is a different medium with its own rewards and pleasures.

      Would I rather go to see Chekhov than watch Breaking Bad? Yes, absolutely. But would I rather check out the latest show on HBO than a new play written by some 20-something that everyone in the theater world will tell you is the second coming of Shakespeare? Definitely the former. And I get HBO for $10 a month whereas the theater will run me $40.

      For me, it’s less an issue of greatness than consistency and excellence. The development process in theater is profoundly broken. At several cable stations, it now works to produce shows that are edgy and thoughtful and even quite intellectual.

      The shows you mention are the tip of the iceberg. Brotherhood, Deadwood, In Therapy, the first season of Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Gallactica, Curb Your Enthusiasm—I am not going to try and convince you they are as good as Our Town, but if you want great dramatic writing with rich characters and an interesting take on contemporary American life, they can’t be beat. I feel confident that if you gave these shows a try, you might have much richer material to write about than you're finding in theater.

      And there are some TV critics worth reading. Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books:

      This is a good recent piece on Breaking Bad in the London Review of Books:

      I would urge you to give up Downton Abbey which is basically the same thing PBS has been dishing up to its Anglophilic viewers for the last 30 years. There's much, much better out there.