Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through March 19
This play by Moises Kaufman is an extraordinary piece of work — rich, multifaceted and multilayered, both disturbing and reassuring. Nominally, it’s about a piece of music: Beethoven’s 33 Diabelli Variations, which he wrote based on a waltz by Anton Diabelli. While the music is important in itself, it’s also a device for opening up a wide range of subjects, from the creative process, to the nature of obsession, to the human ability to keep going even when life heaps on terrible afflictions.
The piece features two separate but parallel plots. The first, set in the early 1820s in Vienna, zeros in on composer Ludwig van Beethoven (Bruce Ladd), and his obsessive attempt to find a conclusion for his massive 33 Variations, despite the growing deafness which threatens his ability to create. The other story, set in New York City and Bonn, Germany, centers on musicologist and Beethoven expert Dr. Katherine Brandt (Nan McNamara), who is equally obsessed with trying to understand why the composer should have been so intrigued by what she considers Diabelli’s trivial little waltz. She decides to go to Bonn, to visit the Beethoven archive to search for answers, despite the fact that she has the monstrously debilitating and usually terminal Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Brandt’s spunky and erratic but loyal daughter Clara (Greyson Chadwick) opposes her mother’s decision to travel alone to a foreign country when her condition is so perilous. She is joined in her concern by her mother’s male nurse, Mike (Brandon Parrish), who becomes her friend and then her lover.
But Brandt is determined, and takes off for Bonn. There she is greeted by Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Treva Tegtmaier), curator of the archive, who at first distrusts Brandt’s mission and credentials, but soon becomes a fast friend.
When we first encounter the irascible and temperamental Beethoven, he is just a grumpy offstage voice, hurling his unsatisfactory lunch tray at his faithful, much put-upon amanuensis and care-giver (and later biographer). Anton Schindler (John Allee). In a clever marketing ploy, music publisher Diabelli (Stephen Rockwell) has invited all the major composers of his day to write variations on his little waltz, in hopes of producing a volume that will contain works by all of them. Beethoven at first refuses, but becomes obsessed by the waltz and then, to Diabelli’s discomfiture, begins to produce a seemingly endless array of variations.
As Brandt and Ladenburger examine the Beethoven papers (wearing white gloves to protect the fragile manuscripts), the action is amplified. We hear many of the 33 Variations, courtesy of expert onstage pianist Dylan Price, while observing, via visual projections, the composer’s journals, complete with all his musical sketches, false starts, illegible blots and scribbles, and the soup stains left by the messy but determined maestro. (He was almost as passionate about his vittles as he was about his music.)
It is no secret now that Beethoven was able to rise above his total deafness and transcribe the music he could only hear in his mind’s ear. He went on to write some of his finest works, including the majestic Ninth Symphony and the late quartets. (Nevertheless, certain self-important critics proclaimed that the 9th was just the sort of incoherent, meaningless cacophony one would expect from a composer who was deaf.)
Meanwhile, Brandt is suffering increased weakness, transforming from a vital, energetic woman to a fragile creature who must walk first with a cane, then with a walker, then with a motorized wheel-chair, and finally, immobile, not at all. Those scenes are hard to watch, but their grimness is ameliorated by a steady supply of tender and affectionate comedy. And her illness does not prevent her from continuing the work on the monograph which will capture her insights into Beethoven and his work.
Kaufman weaves the many strands of his plot into a seamless tale, according full respect to all eight of his characters, and ending on a note of triumph, transfiguration, and reconciliation. Director Thomas James O’Leary gives the play an impeccable production on Nicholas Acciani’s beautiful and fluid set, enlivened by his valuable projections. Vicki Conrad provides the handsome 19th and 20th century costumes, David B. Marling supplies the sound design, and Michelle Parrish is the choreographer.
Acting kudos must go to the two lead performers, McNamara and Ladd, for their gallant and richly detailed performances. Ladd gives us a risky but successful portrait of the great composer in the throes of composition — the most convincing I’ve ever seen of a great man at work. Tegtmeier shines as the curator who befriends Brandt and has the courage to tell her the home truths she needs to hear, and Chadwick and Parrish are equally fine as the young lovers. Allee and Rockwell provide persuasive sketches of the two men of modest talents who faithfully serve the curmudgeonly Beethoven. (Never mind that Schindler partially falsified his biography of the Master in order to exaggerate his own involvement. When the chips are down, which of us does not have feet of clay?)
The Actors Co-op’s David Schall Theatre, 1760 North Gower St., on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Additional matinees on Feb. 18 and March 18, 2:30 P.m. (323) 462-8460 or www.ActorsCo-op.org. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.