Wit Meets Amadeus – "What do we think?" I asked the woman next to me at the bar during intermission of a preview of the new Moisés Kaufman play 33 Variations. "I like the set," she replied tactfully. As I settled in for Act 2, the woman beside me murmured to her companion, "Maybe it'll get better." Uh-oh.
As playwright-director of Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, Kaufman ranks high among practitioners of docudrama. With 33 Variations, he is trying something slightly different. "Although this play is based on a historical event," he says in a program note, "I have chosen to explore this story from a fictional perspective. Thus, this play is not a reconstruction of a historical event; rather, it's a series of variations on a moment in a life."
The historical event in question is the mysterious genesis of Beethoven's late masterpiece 33 Variations on a waltz by Anton Diabelli, op. 120. As every music-history student knows, the Viennese publisher Diabelli once dashed off a thumping little waltz and sent it to 15 top composers in Vienna, hoping to publish an album with one variation by each composer. After first refusing, Beethoven went on to deliver—years later—a quixotic collection of 33 variations, one of the pinnacles of the piano literature. Why? And why 33?
As reported by Beethoven's faithful but unreliable amanuensis, Beethoven despised Diabelli's waltz. Kaufman's fictional musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt (played on Broadway by Jane Fonda) is unconvinced. Though in the late stages of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, she ransacks the sacrosanct Beethoven archives in Bonn to find clues to the mystery and solves it to her satisfaction in the nick of time. Beethoven, Diabelli, and Schindler drift in and out of the action, too. A terminal female academic (as in Margaret Edson's Wit), messy scenes of musical Vienna (as in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus): it's all by the numbers, and it doesn't add up to 33.
As a playwright and director, Kaufman has a habit of sending actors to the footlights to talk at the audience. It worked in Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project but falls flat here. Seeking to expand his technique, he throws in a first-act finale that mimics an operatic ensemble, minus the music that might make it worth listening to. And at the end, the actors perform a modest little dance (Straight out of Alan Ayckbourn) that mirrors his heroine's trite and far-from-revolutionary musicological conclusion.
The scenery—mostly manuscript pages hung out like a bumper crop of freshly washed table napkins—is by Derek McLane. The pianist Diane Walsh is heard from now and then with excerpts from the Diabelli Variations, which she deserves to play from start to finish, center stage.
Tattoo for Alice Tully
The reopening of Alice Tully Hall in late February marked a milestone in the revitalization of Lincoln Center. As widely reported, the news is very good indeed. Diller Scofidio + Renfro have transformed the lobbies beyond recognition, creating inviting spaces that are light and airy but also dramatic. Better still, the auditorium has been reborn. The walls are covered in wood from a single African Moabi tree, which no doubt has something to do with the acoustics, formerly mediocre, now remarkable. The opening potpourri on February 22 ranged from 15th-century Sephardic romances to Osvaldo Golijov by way of Bach, Beethoven, and Stravinsky. Within the vast palette of sounds that evening, none was more magical than the soft boom of a drum wedged between the knees of David Mayoral, from the ensemble Hespèrion XXI. On February 27, the hall's resident ensemble, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, presented a program called War and Pieces, organized by the violinist Daniel Hope and narrated by Klaus Maria Brandauer, who opened with speeches from Goethe's Egmont and wrapped up with Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale. The big surprise that night was Jan Müller-Wieland's arrangement of Beethoven's great overture to Egmont—a concert staple—for the same weird ensemble as the Stravinsky: clarinet, bassoon, carnet, trombone, violin, double bass, and percussion. When first approached, by Hope, about arranging the Beethoven, Wieland-Müller declared the task impossible. Then he did it anyway, producing a concert piece of fantastic wit and panache. But the sound that echoed in the mind more than any other that night was once again that of a drum—this time, a big, bass number, which Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørsensen, of Norway, attacked at the top of the show like a one-man army. Along with his fellow instrumentalists, he was improvising a prelude to Brandauer's tirades from Egmont, and he certainly got your attention.
Hail and Farewell
The Bridge Project's production of The Winter's Tale at the Brooklyn Academy of Music closes on March 8, which is much too soon, and the tickets are all gone. Should your travels take you to Epidaurus (Greece), Auckland (New Zealand), Recklinghausen (Germany), Singapore, Madrid, or London in the coming months, the good fortune may be yours to catch the peripatetic troupe abroad. In Rebecca Hall's Hermione, the Sicilian queen wrongfully accused of adultery, the solid Sam Mendes production rises to greatness. The early scenes show us the actress we have seen in films like Frost/Nixon and Vicky Cristina Barcelona: disarming in her generosity, good-humored, with a touch of the gawky. Then comes the Trial Scene, and in walks a tragedienne of the highest order. Her pallor, the lowered pitch of her voice, her lack of self-pity coupled with the flinty power of her argument: these add up to a portrait of integrity in extremis that both hurts and inspires. (The moonlike beauty of her face as well as her regal stature further amplify her expressive powers.) Thereafter, Hermione vanishes until the final scene of the play, set 16 years later, when her supposed statue awakens to life. At that point, she speaks but once, blessing the long-lost daughter she bore in prison. Hall lends her last lines and gestures a contained eloquence. As for the unearned royal reconciliation the plot seems to be heading for, Shakespeare leaves it unspoken. Hall and Mendez find a way to honor the ambiguity, neither affirming nor denying.