The Lyric Stage Company presents Moises Kaufman’s visionary 2007 play about creation and creative exploration, ambition, and legacy -- a play that takes as its central motif Beethoven’s obsessive, years-long composition of thirty-three masterful variations on a sprightly, but unremarkable, waltz.
The play’s title, "33 Variations," refers not only to Beethoven’s (James Andreassi) fascination with the original waltz, written by music publisher Anton Diabelli (Will McGarrahan), but also to the way the play is written. Kaufman has composed thirty-three scenes, some of them set in the present and dealing with the family and health issues of musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Paula Plum), and some of them set during the years 1819 - 1823, when Beethoven, himself beset with health and financial problems, undertook the task of writing the variations.
At first, the play tells us, Beethoven thought he might compose half a dozen or so variations; but as he became more and more involved in the work, he discovered deeper and richer possibilities. His work on the variations was feverish, if sporadic, and eventually resulted in thirty-three, not six or seven, compositions.
Beethoven’s assistant, Anton Schindler (Victor L. Shopov), may or may not have fabricated the notion that Beethoven initially detested Diabelli’s waltz and wanted nothing to do with the vanity project of interpreting it. For Dr. Brant (Paula Plum), it’s more than a minor point: Why would Beethoven have thrown himself so obsessively into the project if he didn’t like the waltz from which he spun so much ingenious music? Did his "33 Variations on a Waltz" amount to a sort of vanity project of his own, Beethoven seeking to show off the improvements he could make to a mundane work? Or did he simply do it for the money Diabelli offered?
Dr. Brandt’s ferocious concentration on these issues stems partly from her professional and aesthetic interest in Beethoven’s work, but she’s also facing extreme pressure from grant makers worried that she won’t produce a groundbreaking monograph. Far more urgent, however, is the deadline imposed by her own failing health. Brandt’s body is shutting down, degree by degree. In order to finish her research and publish what will be her final academic work, she has to pour all of her remaining strength, and every last moment, into studying and interpreting the fragmentary records that still exist in a Vienna archive.
Dr. Brandt’s worried daughter, Clara (Dakota Shepard), isn’t content to sit tight in the States and wait to hear from her mother. She’s between jobs anyway, so Clara takes off for Vienna with boyfriend Mike (Kelby T. Aiken) in tow (fortunately, Mike is a nurse, and can offer Dr. Brandt some therapeutic attention). The little family finds a friend in archivist Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Maureen Keller), an initially severe woman who, upon discovering that Dr. Brandt is a kindred spirit, warms up considerably.
There’s plenty to pick apart here, but Kaufman’s intent is to combine and contrast; as the program notes point out, the thirty-three scenes in this two and one half hour play are constructed as a means of exploring the variations and nuances of critical life passages, where motive and passion intersect with -- and transcend -- the urgencies of the everyday world. Health, money, and family issues press in and, to some degree, shape artistic and academic endeavor. It may sometimes seem an impossible task to harmonize such disparate forces, and one especially striking moment puts all the characters on stage at the same time, their cross-cutting dialogue unifying and contrasting everyone’s needs and motives in a lovely, even kaleidoscopic, fashion. The act of creation is all about doing things never done before, but the cost of true creation can be incalculably high.
At the far end of the process, however, is another problem: Where does one finally reach an end point? How, as one character puts it, does one finally know how and when to "let go?" This is a problem for anyone to grapple with. Not everyone is an artist or an academic, but the possibility exists for every individual to make one’s life count for something lasting and true.
Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos directs this production, and shows off some inspired staging. Veloudos has cast this production well, starting with Paula Plum, who ignites Dr. Brandt’s luminous intellect even as her body breaks down. The rest of the cast shine as well; Victor Shopov brings an extra gleam to any role; James Andreassi, familiar from many a production of Shakespeare (often in the company of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project), appears with the Lyric Stage Company for the first time, and gives his Beethoven a swagger that springs both from suffering and grace.
Maureen Keiller nails her character’s blend of Teutonic reserve (bordering on contempt) and compassion. Will McGarrahan, a Lyric Stage veteran, is a source of comic relief and, at moments, dramatic counterpoint, as is Aiken, whose Mike is forever saying exactly the wrong thing, in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Dakota Shepard, also debuting with the Lyric in this role, offers, on the one hand, a trepidation that fits with her character’s itinerant career interests (a constant source of worry for Dr. Brandt) and, on the other hand, an irrepressible constancy of devotion to her impatient, independent mother.
Pianist Catherine Stornetta brings the play to life musically, her work at the keyboard illustrating Brandt and Ladenburger’s musicological exchanges and Beethoven’s flights of creativity but also, more crucially, anchoring the production in the work of the great composer himself. Much of Stornetta’s performance is done, literally, from behind the scenes, but she animates the musically literary soul of this production.
"33 Variations" continues through Feb. 2 at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston. Tickets cost $25 - $58 and can be obtained online at lyricstage.com or via phone at 617-585-5678. Seniors receive a $5 discount; Student Rush tickets sell for $10. Group discounts are also available.
Performance schedule: Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 3:00. There will also be a Wednesday afternoon matinee on Jan. 30.