Music is time-bound. It must move forward or cease to be. A few hundred years from now, most likely music will leave linear progression and become vertical as well as horizontal. It may even move forward and backward at the same time. Or blast at once toward the four winds, creating harmonies and dissonances in nether regions heretofore unimaginable. Gardens of notes will bloom inside a grace-note, like quaternion mathematics or chaos theory’s “self-similarity.” Listening to this music might feel like playing three-dimensional tic-tac-toe (but with eight or ten dimensions) and, for full appreciation, will probably require an out-of-body experience.
Beginning in 1819, Ludwig van Beethoven made a foray into the extratemporal. Anton Diabelli, a budding publisher, composed a bass-heavy, two-part ditty so simple that, by comparison, Antonio Salieri’s compositions shine with genius. Diabelli asked 50 composers to write a variation on his theme. At first Beethoven rejected the offer (he may, or may not, have called the piece a “cobbler’s patch”). Then he changed his mind and fixated on the music inside Diabelli’s waltz as if it held the meaning of life.
Beethoven became so involved, he may even have blocked. The great composer, who could improvise themes and variations on the piano like no one else, abandoned the Diabelli for almost three years. The seriousness of that break suggests a profound motivation. He’d become obsessed. And the question Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations asks is why?
Did Beethoven just need the ducats? Was he merely parodying Diabelli’s piffle? Or was he showing off — and showing 50 composers, including Schubert and a young Franz Liszt, he was their superior 33 times over? In writing that many responses, was he one-upping Bach’s 32 “Goldberg Variations”? Though each may be partially true (since there probably isn’t a single answer), it’s more likely Beethoven’s struggle was with himself. He wanted, as the play says, to “slow time down” and created the musical equivalent of a hypertext to explore “what is in every moment of the waltz.” Like his near contemporary William Blake, Beethoven may have wanted to show the world in a grain of sand.
Next to Beethoven’s all-consuming odyssey, Kaufman devised a parallel plot, taking place today, that owes a major debt to Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, and especially Margaret Edson’s W;t. Katherine, a contemporary Beethoven scholar suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), becomes obsessed with Beethoven’s obsession. They live parallel lives: he’s going deaf; she’s losing her voice; both are nearing their end. In each “variation,” their obsessions give way to deeper concerns about creativity, time, and the nagging limits of mortality.
In a third variation, Katherine’s daughter Clara (a vital Laura Odeh) must support her heretofore unsupportive mother. Clara and her beau Mike (Ryan King), a nurse and kindhearted bumbler, must put their own lives on hold. Other supporters — Beethoven’s swindling amanuensis Schindler, Diabelli, and Dr. Gertie Ladenburger — must stabilize the principals like the flying buttresses of a fractured cathedral.
Jane Atkinson is quite good as Katherine, her passion for answers increasing as her body deteriorates. But the specter of W;t, in which a crabby Donne scholar succumbs to cancer and slowly accepts her mortality, hovers over the character. Katherine feels derivative (a variation on Edson’s theme?). If her scenes weren’t combined with the Beethoven material, they would play like a mere sketch of W;t.
The contemporary plot forces the characters to fit a formal pattern. The acting — including Susan Kellerman’s terse, excellent Dr. Ladenburger, Erik Steele’s officious Schindler, and Don Amendolia’s flustered Diabelli — gives them rounded touches but can’t quite conceal the puppeteer’s manipulative strings.
33 Variations has a nagging, coattail predictability: if X happens to Ludwig van, you’ll know it’ll happen, in some form, to Catherine. But the play soars with a mystery far greater than Beethoven’s obsession: the creative process. Mozart, Shakespeare, and Lord Byron allegedly walked around the block, came home, sat down, and penned whole compositions without blotting a line. Beethoven (and Tennessee Williams) wrote, revised, and recomposed, relentlessly going back, expanding, compressing, vitalizing. Beethoven’s early research for Fidelio filled four sketchbooks, 346 pages. His biographers say he hated the word “composer” (he called himself a tondichter, a “tone poet”) and could recall every note he ever imagined, most of which he wrote down, as if composing a lifelong, aural autobiography, and then wrote over. “Difficulty is beautiful,” he once wrote, “good, great.” They say his hands were always black with ink.
Derek McLane’s large, imposing set serves both periods. It is, at once, a modern archive, at Bonn, Germany, of Beethoven’s myriad writings, and a representation of his mind. Files rise from the floor to the ceiling. Pages of music — the 33 variations? — hang in rows, like mini-newspapers on movable panels, and spin to change scenes. Jeff Sugg’s rear-wall projections mark the stages of a draft: notes in white cover earlier attempts, like a palimpsest or a geological dig, as Beethoven would clarify a moment while struggling for “perfection in the work.” Diane Walsh performs the variations on a piano, stage right, to near perfection.
Zach Grenier, his hulking shoulders tilted forward, makes Beethoven a rogue grizzly. As in monster movies, at first we don’t see him. We hear a stormy racket offstage (and there’s nothing “musical” about it). When he appears, he rages, then shrinks, then whines like a brat. He’s a diva times ten, with sheer Tourette’s honesty. At one point he complains, “They want what I make, but they don’t understand what it takes to make it.” In the play’s best scene, Grenier puts us inside Beethoven’s creative process, and we see what it takes. And possibly how it will feel to hear music a few hundred years from now.
33 Variations by Moises Kaufman
La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Kaufman; cast: Don Amendolia, Jayne Atkinson, Zach Grenier, Susan Kellermann, Ryan King, Laura Odeh, Erik Steele, Diane Walsh; scenic design, Derek McLane; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, David Lander; sound, Andre Pluess; pianist, Diane Walsh; musical composition, Ludwig van Beethoven
Playing through May 4; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.