The Lyric Stage is serving up a midwinter treat to Boston music lovers and theatergoers with a vibrant production of 33 Variations, a cleverly crafted play by Moisés Kaufman. Taking its title from the 33 Diabelli Variations that Beethoven composed for piano, the play rings changes on the theme of obsessive intellectual pursuit against the challenge of physical decline.
For Beethoven, the obsession was finding out how many variations he could wring out of a brief waltz of no obvious distinction, even as he grew increasingly deaf. For Dr. Katherine Brandt, a present-day musicologist whose career has been devoted to studying Beethoven’s work, it is gaining understanding of what motivated him to lavish such attention on the waltz and its variations. She doggedly pursues her research even as ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) ravages her body. Brandt travels to Bonn to spend the few months she has left to grapple with her quest.
Kaufman has set their two stories play in counterpoint, making visible Beethoven’s intense psychological suffering at losing his hearing by charting its progress through Brandt’s physical deterioration. Brandt’s trajectory from barbed-tongued expert to nearly mute victim, strikes an emotional chord that awakened a sympathy as deep for Beethoven as for herself.
The result is an engaging evening that crackles with theatricality. When Kaufman brings characters from the play’s two eras together on stage, their unknowing interactions resonate intriguingly. This is especially so in a verbal fugue on the theme “time is scarce” that closes the first act.
The waltz at the heart of the variations and the story was composed by the Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli, a long-time friend of Beethoven’s. Diabelli invited fifty composers to submit one variation each to a folio that he proposed to publish for the benefit of flood victims.
Beethoven, however, could not stop after only one variation. Or even at nine or sixteen. And when he gave up working on them entirely for more than two years as he battled illness and worked on his Missa Solemnis, he refused to hand over to Diabelli any part of what he had composed until he felt he was finished. When he did, it was his longest piece for piano, and a work of startling originality.
In 33 Variations, Beethoven’s secretary, and eventual biographer, Anton Schindler, must repeatedly fend off the importuning of Diabelli, who has advanced a sizable fee for the variations and feels Beethoven is mocking him by delaying their completion; Beethoven worked on them from 1819 to 1823.
The skillful use of projections allows the audience to look over Brandt’s shoulder as she imagines herself looking over Beethoven’s shoulder at the sketchbooks he filled while developing his ideas for the variations. As she turns the pages, their contents appear on a series of screens behind her. Later, notes in Beethoven’s hand appear on a projected score as he hears them take melodic shape in his mind.
Excerpts from the Diabelli Variations sensitively underscore the journey made by these characters, thanks to the full-bodied playing of Catherine Stornetta at a piano upstage center. Sometimes Stornetta plays in full view, sometimes behind screens. Sometimes she plays one of the variations in its entirety, sometimes just a fragment to mark a turning point. She makes the music a character in the play.
Indeed, the Variations are much better at bringing Beethoven’s voice to life than Kaufman’s script which too often opts for shtick when substance would have been welcome. In a hardworking performance by James Andreassi, Kaufman’s Beethoven alternates between didactic rage and easy laughs.
Only once does Beethoven come close to being a human force in this play. For brief moment, Brandt leans on him silently as she recovers from an exhausting session of x-rays. She is perched on one side of a gurney, he on the other. As she confronts her mortality, it is to Beethoven that she turns for affecting solace.
Brandt is given a smart and measured rendering by Paula Plum who makes the most out meager material. Brandt is written as a snarky academic and overbearing mother who never fails to point out her daughter’s failings. Yet with the help three other characters from the present day, Plum makes Brandt’s all-consuming passion compelling. Why was Beethoven “so obsessed with this mediocre waltz?” Eventually she reaches an epiphany that in the Diabelli Variations, he was “creating new forms of music that surpassed” anything he had previously composed.
Brandt’s daughter, Clara, a young woman whose ever-widening life journey challenges of her mother’s tight focus on her field, is given great humanity by Dakota Shepard who grounds the play whenever she is on stage. A young nurse named Mike, played with good humor by Kelby T. Akin, helps the other characters make sense Brandt’s decline while becoming romantically involved with Clara.
Kaufman lards the dialogue between Diabelli and Schindler with enough biographical detail to provide sufficient context for anyone not familiar with Beethoven’s life. At times, though, their chatter verges towards a recitation from Groves Encyclopedia of Music. But lively turns from Will McGarrahan as Diabelli and Victor L. Shopov as Schindler give a freshness to the data they are dispensing.
At the heart of the production is a deftly nuanced performance by Maureen Keiler as the white-gloved scholar, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, who runs the Beethoven archive in Bonn. By turns starchy and big-hearted, she is a woman of few words, but they are often the wisest in the play. More than any other character, she evokes the sense that Beethoven is nearby, and is as interested in our curiosity about him as we are in his creative process. No wonder that Brandt opens up to Dr. Ladenburger in way she cannot speak to any one else, not even her daughter.
Director Spiro Veloudos’s staging satisfies on many levels as he mines every bit of its power and papers over the cracks in its sometimes shallow script with great inventiveness. He is very well assisted by scenic designer, Christina Todesco, and the projections designed by Shawn Boyle. Along with lighting designer Karen Perlow, they expand the Lyric’s intimate performance space to embrace two continents in two centuries. Costume designer Charles Schoonmaker hits the mark in both eras of the play.
At one point in her research, Brandt discovers a brief passage in Beethoven’s sketches that never made it into the variations. She thrills when she hears it played for the first time. And so do we. It’s one of the many pleasures awaiting those who experience 33 Variations, which runs through February 2nd .