And in 33 Variations, Kaufman had a play in development. That meant it had already debuted at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., but might still need, as Ashley put it, “another stage to explore itself before it ended up in New York. I saw it in Washington and almost made a call at intermission to offer for him to come here. I was that excited.”
The play tells the story of Katherine Brandt, an ailing musicologist who becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s obsession with a “secondhand waltz” written by music publisher Anton Diabelli. Diabelli invites 50 composers to write a single variation on his waltz; Beethoven winds up writing the titular 33. The play skips back and forth in time, from Katherine to Beethoven and back again, allowing for the occasional chronological mash-up. As she struggles against time to unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s obsession, Katherine must also confront her disappointment with her own “secondhand waltz” — a daughter who is loving but worryingly unfocused, seemingly content to spend herself little by little on this thing and that.
Kaufman was happy to accept Ashley’s invitation. “There was a lot he wanted to work on,” recalls Ashley. “He’s a perfectionist; I think he’s had plays that have been four years in workshops. Here, he kept working right through the previews.”
“I wanted to increase the character of Beethoven,” says Kaufman. “And I wanted to deepen the relationship between the mother and the daughter.”
Ashley elucidates: “In Washington, Beethoven was a much more rudimentary character. He had a lot of stage time but almost no development. The present was where all the complete thinking had happened, and the past was kind of sketched in. Moises wanted to explore the questions of ‘Who is Beethoven? What’s he going through? How is his journey paralleling Katherine’s? How are the two story lines working toward colliding at the end?’ And he fleshed out the way the daughter was debilitated by her mother’s disapproval and how their relationship developed through time. This draft is very different than what he had in Washington.”
There are a number of reasons for that difference. Kaufman’s own questions came first, but those of others followed. “He’s very collaborative,” says Ashley. “Every single night, questions would come up in rehearsals, and he would go home and redraft and rethink.”
Says Kaufman, “I work very much on my feet, with the actors on their feet, improvising, making changes. I do listen to the actors. It was funny — I was directing a couple of episodes of The L Word for television, and I would go on-set and ask an actor, ‘What do you think your character wants at this moment? Why is she behaving this way?’ The actor’s eyes would open up — she was so grateful, really. ‘You really want me to tell you what I think?’ Most of the time, the director just says, ‘Stand over there and say your line,and then come over here and say this other line.’ In theater, you’re in the same room for many hours a day. Remember the scene in 33 Variations where Katherine comes over and sits down at the table and leans her head on Beethoven’s back? That scene doesn’t have a line of text — it was arrived at entirely through improvisation.” Kaufman is quick to acknowledge that there are some film directors who are interested in actors’ opinions, but still, the story plays to his notion of theater as the more communal milieu.
In this case, the communion was between playwright, director, and actor — and artistic director. “What shocked me about Ashley,” says Kaufman, “is that for someone who’s been at his job for so little time, he does it so well. He knows intuitively what the process needs: you want somebody supportive, but you don’t want someone in your rehearsal room every day, and you don’t want someone who gives you what you need and then doesn’t come around again until opening night. Chris would leave us alone for weeks at a time, but he always kept in touch with me. And after the first previews, he gave me some fantastic notes. There were moments in the beginning where I was letting the actors take some time, and he said, ‘You don’t need that. Your play resides in the next two scenes, not in those moments.’ And he was absolutely right. I think the job is a really good fit for him.”
Other changes, says Kaufman, got made because “I am interested in playwriting that uses every single element of the stage. I call it ‘writing performance’ instead of ‘writing text.’ You saw it in 33 Variations — the sets were used, the projections, the live pianist; everything was used to create a narrative.”
That’s true. I saw the play in the Playhouse’s 492-seat Mandell Weiss Theatre — a standard proscenium with a stage down front. (The facility’s other major space, the Mandell Weiss Forum, is designed as a thrust — one portion of the stage jutting out well in front of the rest.) Any number of moments from the La Jolla Playhouse production of 33 Variations might serve to illustrate Kaufman’s notion of creating narrative, but I’ll choose just one: Beethoven alone at center stage, staring wildly at nothing save perhaps the music in his head, gesturing with swoops and jerks of his hands and arms and fingers as he describes the motion of the music he is wringing out of the “secondhand waltz,” the same music that’s ringing out from the piano stage left, while behind him on the wall, the notes appear like black spatters of paint on a projected staff. (I’m a child of my age; I would call the effect frankly cinematic. I suspect Kaufman would prefer “theatrical.”)
After the play, as my wife and I wandered out through the lobby toward the evening dark, a woman draped in swaths of black fabric called out, “There will be a postshow outside in five minutes!” About six people gathered to see what was what. When the woman — La Jolla Playhouse teaching artist Sherri Allen — emerged to join us, she began running down a list of questions and making notes of our answers. An example: