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Margaret Croyden

Jane Fonda in "33 Variations "

"33 Variations"
Written and directed by Moises Kaufman
Eugene O'Neill Theater, West 45th Street
Opened March 9, 2009
Reviewed March 18, 2009 by Margaret Croyden

It's nice to have Jane fonda on the Broadway stage. And I'm sure she is appreciated by her fans who, the night I saw her performance, gave her a standing ovation. Indeed Jane Fonda looks good, makes all the right moves, speaks clearly, reacts to everything, but is unexciting: she lacks charisma. Which is necessary for this part, in fact for any part. Fonda undertakes a most unusual character. She plays a music scholar who has a deadly disease with little time to live. Nevertheless, obsessed with Beethoven's many years of writing the 32 variations based on Anton Diabelli's little waltz, she wants to ferret out why Beethoven spent so much time with this project. She decides she must go to Bonn to research the master's life. An interesting idea to be sure.
As her search continues, the play shifts to Beethoven composing the variations. This is accompanied by a live piano rendition of the music (piece by piece), that Beethoven took years to perfect. In the meantime, the musicologist befriends a German scholar who helps her with her research and later helps her to die.

Samantha Mathis, left, Colin Hanks, and Jane Fonda perform in" 33 Variations," currently running at Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York.

The playwright's dramatization of Beethoven's life and struggle as he composes the variations is the most interesting part of the play. The rest of the work is maudlin and unattractive. To watch someone (Fonda's character) disintegrate (in detail) for more than two hours without any redeeming feature is enough to drive one out of the theater. Dying is tragic to be sure, but in this play it is boring.

The first act is the best, because the theme is revealed in a simple way. Then when the playwright drags in a secondary plot-- the musicologist's daughter, her boy friend, and her strained relationship with her mother--the story becomes melodramatic.

To boot, Jane Fonda cannot carry off this kind of part. On stage almost throughout the long two and a half hours, she has few variations in tone or feeling. In an effort to avoid the possible sentimentality of the piece, she loses the softer side of the character, so that she comes across without any real contrast or emotional quality. In fact most of the time she is bland.

On the other hand, the dramatization of Beethoven's struggle is informative and sometimes compelling. The actor Zach Grenier--though he borders on the stereotypical egomaniacal genius ranting and roaring about his music--livens up the stage. As for the daughter--a typical ingenue part--Samantha Mathis is conventional and unappealing. Her boyfriend (Colin Hanks) is a dull, unsexy male nurse who she befriended when accompanying her mother to the hospital.

Moises Kaufman, whose work I have admired since his grand success of "I Am My Own Wife," had a great idea, but complicated it up by sticking in a secondary plot: mother-daughter relationship and daughter-boyfriend relationship. But when the action shifted to Beethoven and his struggle with his life and music, the play became alive.

One of the best things about this production is the stunning set of the library stacks as Fonda searches for her material. And the accompanying music played bit by bit by Diane Walsh that follows Beethoven's composing the variations is moving.

I'm afraid that when actors return to the theater after years of movie making, they lose the power needed for a fine stage performance. There are no lights no camera to help out. The actor is on his or her own. Admittedly that is a hard job. Credit Jane Fonda for trying.


Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Fairer, Straus and Giroux).

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