Irving — Moisés Kaufman’s 2009 play 33 Variations embodies a brilliant premise: two storylines, both showcasing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, function contrapuntally. One is the tale of Beethoven’s inspiration and process in 1820s Vienna. The other is the story of a contemporary musicologist, dying of ALS, who travels from New York to Bonn to try to unwrap the Variations’ great mystery: why did an unremarkable waltz by hack composer and music publisher Anton Diabelli inspire Beethoven, the greatest composer of his day, to write 33 variations on the theme of the waltz?
For the current production from Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas, the traditional proscenium stage of the Dupree Theater at the Irving Arts Center is divided into three areas by scenic designer Dane Tuttle. One houses the present New York and Bonn, the other 1820s Vienna. The contemporary area uses plain risers to create an almost industrial mood, while the risers as well as the furnishings in “Beethoven’s Vienna” are more ornate, effectively evoking the aesthetics of both eras. In between the two is the Pianist’s area. The Pianist performs excerpts from the Diabelli Variations, bringing life to the music that is the literal and figurative centerpiece of the play.
Indeed, Miyoun Jang, the Pianist, is the true star of this show. Her playing is clean, precise, and unmannered, with sufficient presence yet never overpowering the actors. Her playing, coupled with the drama of the play’s plot, will no doubt encourage many audience members to discover other renditions of the Diabelli Variations. I particularly recommend Igor Levit’s recent recording, available here.
The actors mostly embody their roles effectively, with a few missteps. Dana Harrison’s Dr. Katherine Brandt, the dying musicologist, is skillful and reasonably nuanced as she accepts her death and makes a discovery about Beethoven’s manuscript at the same time. Rhonda Durant overplays the role as Dr. Brandt’s daughter Clara. Clara is an emotional mess for much of the play, as she tries to balance her own adulthood with the impending end of her mother’s life. Toning it down just a bit might allow audiences to connect more effectively with her character.
Fernando Hernández finds the right balance as Dr. Brandt’s nurse, who becomes Clara’s boyfriend. It’s a critical supporting role, as is that of Dr. Brandt’s German friend, Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger. Nina Wright is believable, and has the best German accent of the three actors who adopt them.
Rodney Dunn’s Beethoven is sometimes a bit difficult to understand, both because of the German accent and because of his quirky vocal inflections, and Michael Speck’s Anton Diabelli is occasionally overplayed. But more importantly, they create interest in a real and rather prosaic event that happened almost 200 years ago: Beethoven and other composers receive a commission to write one variation apiece on a waltz by Diabelli, to be sold as sheet music. Beethoven becomes a bit obsessed, and creates his own set of 33 variations. This takes him years and he misses deadline after deadline—but everyone knows that geniuses can’t be held to deadlines, and art will happen as it happens.
In this play, neither the playwright nor the actors treat their characters’ physical infirmities as gimmicks—while we see Beethoven growing deafer and Dr. Brandt inching closer to death, these are integrated into the plot so that they’re not mere emotional manipulation.
Colored lights used for the backdrop seem to be used randomly, unless I’m missing something. Costumes, by Michael A. Robinson, are terrific for the 19th century characters and for Mike and Dr. Brandt. Clara’s costumes are sometimes distracting, though—why does she wear so many Asian-influenced outfits?
All told, this is an excellent community theater production of a fascinating play. With some minor tweaking it could be outstanding.