“33 Variations” presents a very interesting premise and a long overdue appearance on stage of actress Jane Fonda. Dual plot lines play out as a music scholar (Fonda) seeks to finish a paper on why Beethoven chose to write 33 variations on a seemingly insignificant waltz tune written by a would-be composer who happens to be a successful publisher of music.
In broad stroke terms, the play is about a mother, (Fonda), who comes to terms with her daughter and a composer, (Beethoven), who comes to terms with his genius. And even though they’re separated by 200 years, these two people share an obsession that makes time stand still.
The show, written by Moises Kaufman, has a wonderful element to it; a pianist plays the actual Beethoven variations on a Steinway grand as part of the play’s action. It weaves back and forth in time between the interactions of Beethoven in the past and the musicologist in the present. As a ticking clock element, Fonda’s character is driven to unravel the mystery behind her topic before a debilitating disease takes control of her body.
In her quest, she discovers for herself, (and for us), that if we look closely enough, we may find pleasant satisfaction in unearthing the meaning behind the things we encounter. I’m not referring to “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” NO. I mean, that if a book intrigues you and the cover looks interesting, but doesn’t seem to go with what the book’s about, you should delve into what’s behind the pairing of the two, (the contents and the cover.) Does the odd matchup itself present a story? That story, revealed, might be just as interesting as the contents or the cover.
But it’s not the play that I want to talk about today; it’s what the play inspired in me. One of the plot lines, that discovery and revelation are found by pursuing the truth of what lies behind something, drove me to a similar action as Fonda’s character. I sat in the Eugene O’Neill and began wondering what moments must have taken place there, what personages graced that stage. I found myself entranced by the idea that the magical space of any theatre holds great history and mystery for us. (Pardon the rhyme.)
Taking a cue from the play’s storyline, I did some research and here’s what I came up with for the back story of the O’Neill:
It opened as the Forest in 1925 and was renovated and renamed the Coronet in 1945. In 1959 it became the Eugene O’ Neill and in the late ‘60s it was bought by Neil Simon.
Naturally, a series of Simon plays were presented there beginning with “The Last of the Red Hot Lovers” starring Linda Lavin, ”The Prisoner of Second Avenue” starring Peter Falk, “The Good Doctor” starring Christopher Plummer and Frances Sternhagen, and “California Suite” starring Tammy Grimes. “Chapter Two” opened there but in 1975 moved to the Imperial.
During the ‘60s, the theatre housed Jack Lemmon in “Face of a Hero,” Carol Channing in “Show Girl,” Jason Robards in “A Thousand Clowns” and Barbara Cook in “She Loves Me.”
More historically, “Tobacco Road”, Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” and “A View from the Bridge” opened and closed on that very stage. What great, legendary actors strode those “boards.” As I think back on my matinee afternoon sitting in the O’Neill, I try to imagine all that that space holds. I think about the ghost light left onstage at night after each performance. Oh, if only that ghost light could talk, what stories it could tell.
The magic of a space is in its history. Knowing more of any history makes a place more powerful. Seeing “33 Variations” reaffirmed for me the power of theatre, for what’s on the stage as for what WAS on the stage. No matter where, theatre happens – even from the back of a trailer as was Ed Whitacre’s terrific performance in the 15-minute version last year of “A Christmas Carol” in Merchants Square. That space, already historic in one sense, got transformed into theatre history in another.
So, memory and music in “33 Variations” transported me from present-day New York to 19th-century Austria and back and was a triumph on several levels. I should now call it “34 Variations.”
Victoria Racimo digs arts and culture. She should; she’s the Producing Artistic Director for Palomino Entertainment Group.