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33 Variations

Moisés Kaufman's new study of obsession and the creative process is utterly absorbing.

By Washington, DC
Graeme Malcolm and Mary Beth Peil in 33 Variations
(© Scott Suchman)
Graeme Malcolm and Mary Beth Peil in 33 Variations
(© Scott Suchman)
A study of obsession, the creative process, and the pressure of time's inexorable march, Moisés Kaufman's utterly absorbing new play, 33 Variations, which is getting its world premiere at Arena Stage, promises to do for Beethoven what Proof did for mathematics and Copenhagen did for nuclear physics.

33 Variations has Kaufman taking an audience through what he calls "a series of variations on a moment in a life." It is based on Ludwig van Beethoven obsessively composing his "Diabelli Variations," which are alternative versions, some playful, others serious, of an undistinguished waltz. Kaufman thus echoes the music titan's effort as he weaves together an illuminating examination of the process of composing with emotionally resonant stories.

In vignettes shifting back and forth between 1819-23 and the present, Beethoven struggles with obsession and against time, which is robbing him of his hearing and health, while a modern-day musicologist and her daughter each face similar challenges. The trio's tales are thus like a fugue, a musical composition in which themes are repeated in counterpoint by new "voices" and interwoven. (Ironically, Kaufman has "Diabelli" exclaim, "Everyone knows Beethoven can't write fugues!")

There's also a mystery story regarding the way history records Beethoven as initially rejecting the original waltz written by music publisher Anton Diabelli as an inept "cobbler's patch." Katherine Brandt (Mary Beth Peil) is a present-day Beethoven scholar, afflicted with terminal illness, who nevertheless travels to the Beethoven archive in Bonn to pore through Beethoven's papers, seeking clues to his creative process and the Diabelli mystery. She leaves behind her grown daughter Clara (Laura Odeh), an unfocused and insecure person with whom she shares a strained relationship. Katherine is emotionally inaccessible and Clara is desperate to get close to her "before I have to be your nurse." Thus, both are racing against time, even as Clara begins a tentative relationship with Mike (Greg Keller), Katherine's nurse.

Meanwhile, Beethoven (Graeme Malcolm) is going deaf and suffering other unexplained but apparently painful maladies. Raging at the world one moment, seeming less helpless the next, then charming, the great composer rebels against the race his talent is in against his own mortality.

Director Kaufman keeps it all flowing allegretto, even as playwright Kaufman provides small moments for thoughtful reflection. Despite the subject matter, this work is more playful than ponderous. Indeed, the love story between Clara and Mike is played as light romantic comedy, with both Odeh and Keller deftly handling some broadly comedic moments.

Peil skillfully manages Katherine's brittle mix of ambition and emotional reserve, keeping her a sympathetic figure even as she holds both Clara and a new friend, researcher Dr. Gertie Ladenborger (Susan Kellermann), at arms length. She subtly negotiates the character's significant physical decline without losing the combative spark. Malcolm gives a bravura performance as the flamboyant Beethoven, his grand gestures and expressive voice augmented by his imposing physical presence.

In supporting roles, Don Amendolia as Diabelli, and Erik Steele as Beethoven's biographer and servant Anton Schindler each provide substantially more nuance than might be expected of characters who are something like moths attracted to the composer's flaming brilliance. Pianist Diane Walsh remains onstage throughout, occasionally performing delightful renditions of the variations under discussion.

Derek McLane has created a versatile setting that takes us to 19th-century Vienna and present day Bonn and New York. A series of massive panels covered with yellowing musical manuscripts rotate and re-form, as floor to ceiling stacks of research files sweep on and off stage. The manuscripts also provide a background for projections ranging from the clouds one might see from a jetliner, to the images created by an MRI, or a concert hall.

Are the mysteries solved, or does Kaufman pose more questions than he answers? Figuring that out is part of the fun in this challenging and emotionally satisfying new play.


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