There is a scene at the beginning of Moises Kaufman’s play “33 Variations,” when Dr. Katherine Brandt (Jane Fonda), who is in the early stages of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), poses a question: Why did a genius like Beethoven devote himself in his precious later years to writing a variation on a mediocre waltz composed by his publisher Anton Diabelli?
From 1819-1823 Beethoven produced 33 variations, the Diabelli Variations, and revolutionized the piano form as well.
The question as a springboard to explore several important themes: the nature of art and obsession and their intimate connection to sickness and dying. As Jay Reiner says in The Hollywood Reporter:
This may sound a tad grim, but the writer-director handles the material with such a light, deft, witty touch, the result is not only invigorating but illuminating as few plays are of this genre.
Most of the credit for this accomplishment goes to the presence of Beethoven, beautifully and sumptuously brought to life by Zach Grenier, and his music, finely played by Diane Walsh.
As the play moves nimbly back and forth through time and space, the physical declines of both the composer and Fonda’s Katherine Brandt come to parallel each other as well as provide a window into their struggle for a kind of spiritual transcendence to ease them through their respective journeys.
Of course the LA runs of the show is sold out because of Fonda’s presence. The Los Angeles Times says:
With her trademark gym-bunny physique and coiffed magnificence, this Oscar-winning icon has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand the moment she makes her glamorous entrance.”
But this is no superficial performance. Fonda’s triumph on Broadway in this role was for a reason.
The most haunting moment, tellingly enough, is one in which Fonda, unencumbered with Kaufman’s dialogue, is seen rather than heard. Katherine is undergoing a battery of medical tests, with flashing lights rendering this normally controlling woman utterly helpless. Stricken yet stoical, Fonda journeys with her character to a harrowing place before traveling further still to a land of humility and grace.”
Although Cher, Colin Farrell and Anjelica Huston were among the famous names at the opening, it was a visit by the world’s most famous ALS sufferer that was most important for Fonda. From her blog:
The great physicist, Stephen Hawking, came to the play last night. He has had ALS for 50 years!! That is 25 years longer than the next longest living case of the disease. No one seems to know exactly why Stephan has managed this. One of his colleagues who was there with him said, “I think it is because Stephen is the most stubborn man in the world!”
She wanted to know more from a man who experiences the disease from inside:
I dropped to my knees next to Stephen’s chair, reminding him what Beethoven had said and asked him if, like Beethoven, his disease had enabled him to go further, deeper in his understanding of his research– of the origins of the universe. He began a complex series of “commands” that caused much activity on the computer screen, none of which I could follow. We all waited with bated breath. As I waited, I rested my head on his shoulder, looking closely at him, at the subtle movements in his face as he concentrated on what he was “writing.” And all I could think about was that this man, imprisoned in a wasted body, was able to comprehend matters that are presumed to lie far outside the realm of human understanding.
After about 5 minutes, letters and then words began to slowly appear on the screen: “It… freed… me…” Ah haaa!! Moises and I looked at each other in delight, certain that our hypothesis was about to be proven—sure that Stephen was about to say something like, “it freed me to grasp the origins of the universe…” We waited for the sentence to be finished, another few minutes…and then, there it was: “It freed me to stop teaching!!!” and a computerized voice said it aloud so everyone heard. I looked at Stephen and noticed what appeared to be a sly grin. I’d been told he had a playful sense of humor. He had just demonstrated it! And we all had a good laugh. He didn’t have to teach anymore!!! That’s what ALS had done for him. Of course!!!
A Center Theater Group presentation of a play in two acts written and directed by Moises Kaufman.
Dr. Katherine Brandt – Jane Fonda
Ludwig van Beethoven – Zach Grenier
Clara Brandt – Samantha Mathis
Mike Clark – Greg Keller
Pianist/Musical Director – Diane Walsh
Photo: top, Zach Grenier and Fonda. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.