Moises Kaufman’s lovely, but flawed, play about Beethoven and a present day musicologist is called 33 VARIATIONS, named after Opus 120, where Beethoven transforms a waltz composed by his publisher into a set of 33 glorious variations. Beethoven transfigures the original, composing in entirely new musical directions, creating what the eminent pianist Alfred Brendel has called “the greatest of piano works.” The overpowering excitement in the Lyric Stage production (running through Feb. 2nd) is provided by Catherine Stornetta, playing heroic snippets from Beethoven’s work on a Yamaha Baby Grand, making it sound like a Bösendorfer.
Kaufman invents a difficult parallel with Beethoven’s worsening deafness in the musicologist’s battle with progressive ALS. Director Spiro Veloudos’ smart production has a stellar cast to try and make the comparison work, especially in Paula Plum’s powerful performance as the obsessed Beethoven scholar but the two stories really don’t match up. The present day professor’s struggle with finishing her paper, fixing her relationship with her daughter and coming to terms with her illness is compelling stuff. It reminded me of WIT. But mixing WIT with AMADEUS? I don’t know.
I do know that the Beethoven scenes are thrilling and the one scene, where Plum’s character “hallucinates” so that they can touch across time, is immensely moving. James Andreassi makes the rough, despairing genius both a titan and pitiable, so that you understand his impatience with his secretary (a long suffering Victor Shopov) and his publisher (a wry Will McGarrahan).
But it is Stornetta who gives life to Beethoven’s unconscious. It’s as if the music flows from Andreassi’s performance, the two are connected so viscerally. Stornetta’s breakneck arpeggios up and down the keys, the weight of her fortissimo, the playful ornaments: His very thoughts. If only she could play the complete variations. (I know: Time constraints. What can I say? I am a Beethoven fanatic.)
Dramaturg Nora Long tucked Beethoven’s last will and testament into our press kits. Thank you, Nora. It’s a pity Kaufman didn’t work it somehow into the text. In it Beethoven reveals that he knew painfully well how people misjudged his antisocial behavior.
Another wish is that Kaufman had spent as much time on Beethoven’s life apart from the music as he did with the musicologist’s life apart from her monograph. Kaufman tells us nothing about Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” but we learn a great deal about the scholar’s daughter (the charming Dakota Shepard) and her almost too-good-to-be-true beau (the chipper Kelby T. Aiken) and best of all, her, we get to witness a deep friendship formed with the remarkable gatekeeper of Beethoven’s music and letters at the Bonn Institute (played to perfection by Maureen Keiller).
P.S. If you’ve never seen Gary Oldman’s monumental performance as Beethoven in Bernard Rose’s IMMORTAL BELOVED, run to Netflix and rent it. It’s one of my favorite films. The Moonlight Sonata section, with Oldman’s ear to the piano so he can feel the vibrations of the hammers making sound, is one of the most exquisite and heartbreaking scenes in cinema.