BOSTON — What in the world did Ludwig van Beethoven see in a mediocre ditty by Anton Diabelli that would inspire him to write 33 great variations? That’s the question that haunts a musicologist in “33 Variations” and a question that also haunts the playwright Moisés Kaufman.
The conventional wisdom has been that Beethoven wanted to show he could make something great out of nothing much. Diabelli was his music publisher who requested him, and others, to write a variation on Diabelli’s little waltz. Beethoven originally said no, but then changed his mind and said yes. Thirty-three times.
Why? Kaufman had Jane Fonda ask the question in New York. In Boston we’re treated to Paula Plum, one of our best, along with a winning ensemble under Spiro Veloudos’s elegant direction at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston (through Feb. 2).
And it’s a challenge because Kaufman, author of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project,” isn’t the most elegant writer in the world. He can be terribly didactic and his dialogue isn’t always smoothly naturalistic.
He’s certainly an inventive writer, though, as he goes back and forth between Beethoven’s time and ours like a gifted time traveler, fueled by his quest to find what makes Ludwig tick, what with all those slovenly habits and Asperger’s-like relationships. And arguably the greatest ear in the history of music despite his growing deafness.
Katherine Brandt, the musicologist, also strives for greatness and takes a dim view of her daughter’s lack of same, thinking as dimly of her career changes – the latest being theatrical set design – as she does of Diabelli’s waltz. Her choice of men isn’t much better in Mama’s mind.
Brandt is off to Germany to investigate the Diabelli variations further, much to daughter Clara’s distress because of Katherine’s advancing illness (which mirrors the composer’s advancing deafness). The dynamic that Kaufman sets up between Beethovenian genius and personal ineptitude on the one hand and ordinariness on the other makes “33 Variations” something to savor.
Particularly this production. Veloudos, working with a smart design team, invests the proceedings with a fluidity that matches Kaufman’s appreciation of Beethoven’s genius and Brandt’s dedication. In other words, the action keeps moving forward visually with the same sense of inevitability as Beethoven’s music, adeptly captured by Catherine Stornetta.
Here’s a sample:
As I said, I’m not always sure that Kaufman’s writing allows the actors the same flexibility – particularly in the too-cute toings and froings of Clara and Mike, the nurse who tends mother and daughter in different ways. But by play’s end they have all given a good account of each of the characters, even James Andreassi, whose Beethoven is a little more mad than necessary, though again that might be in Kaufman’s writing.
Plum’s excellence won’t come as a surprise to anyone. The Elliot Norton winner for Sustained Achievement degenerates beautifully and the rest of the cast rises as she falls. Will McGarrahan and Maureen Keiller are as dependable as ever. Dakota Shepard and Kelby T. Aiken are winning as the young lovers, but it’s particularly gratifying to see Victor L. Shopov as Beethoven’s friend, Schindler, move up from his excellent fringe work for Zeitgeist and Theatre on Fire.
Kaufman not only mixes and matches the 19th and 21st centuries with skill, but he’s an excellent musicologist in his own right, his insights into the variations making you wish he had written the liner notes for whichever recording you might have. I won’t give it away, but Brandt’s final epiphany about the variations as she listens to her daughter hum the Diabelli waltz, along with the staging of the final scene, are the stuff that make theatrical revelation something that can’t be matched by other narrative media. Granted, it doesn’t happen often, so we should all be alert, and grateful, when it does grace our lives.
As it does in the Lyric’s “33 Variations.”