When viewed from a certain angle, obsession can be the most destructive creative force there is. Looked at another way, it can be the stuff of transcendent art.
Somewhere in the middle sits “33 Variations,” Moisés Kaufman’s often enthralling play about Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and a modern scholar’s desperate attempt to understand what drove the tortured genius to compose them.
A moving production of the play, deftly directed by David Oliver and featuring a stellar cast, opened Wednesday in MusicalFare Theatre. With MusicalFare director and classically trained musician Randall Kramer at the piano, the play takes audiences between the present day and 18th century Central Europe, a time and place swirling with creativity and political turmoil.
It centers on a modern scholar recently diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, played by the captivating Beth Donohue. The hard-charging musicologist becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Against the advice of her daughter (Morgan Chard), she travels to Bonn, Germany to find out what drove the great composer to create an enduring masterwork out of what was widely viewed as a substandard waltz by the ambitious but untalented music publisher Anton Diabelli (John Fredo). Her daughter eventually follows suit to Bonn, with her newfound boyfriend (Adriano Gatto) in tow.
If this sounds like the opposite of exciting, Kaufman imbues the potentially nap-worthy premise with the kind of smart and economical writing typically reserved for TV cop shows and Hollywood thrillers. Between interludes of the variations played beautifully by Kramer, we skip back and forth through time, from 18th century Vienna to our own troubled century, each time learning something new about the nature of creativity, genius and, perhaps especially, mediocrity.
As the conditions of Beethoven and the music scholar simultaneously decline, Donohue’s character comes to learn important lessons about her subject and herself. “I have to understand why a genius became obsessed with mediocrity,” she says. But gradually, as she pores over Beethoven’s sketchbooks with the help of a sage librarian and friend (Ellen Horst), she realizes that her theory about the composer and her own daughter – whom she views as “a second-rate waltz” – are wrongheaded.
This production is MusicalFare’s latest and most successful foray into the small but growing repertoire of plays that draw dramatic inspiration from the world of classical music. Many of these works can trace their lineage back to “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer’s masterful 1979 play about the fraught relationship between Mozart and the lesser composer Salieri in 19th century Vienna, and most of them suffer by comparison.
This was true of “Old Wicked Songs,” produced by the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York at MusicalFare in 2007, of Kramer’s own lovely if didactic George Gershwin revue “American Rhapsody” in 2009 and the problematic “Two Pianos Four Hands.” “33 Variations” comes close to the transcendent quality of “Amadeus” because of Kaufman’s graceful writing, Oliver’s attention to the interplay of the characters and lovely work from Gatto, Chard, Horst and Fredo.
There are only two minor missteps. The first is Brian Riggs’ too caricaturish portrayal of the great composer, which has him prowling around like Fagin of “Oliver!” (a role he played wonderfully last year) and issuing raspy rebukes that strike the ear strangely. The other is designer Chris Cavanagh’s projection work, which shows us the titles of the variations and various integral quotes in pedestrian Powerpoint style when the show seems to demand something more elegant.
Neither of these false notes do much, however, to throw off the exquisitely calibrated pitch of this excellent play.