Coming Home

It is a voice we’ve missed, a voice like no other—an amalgam of disparities and contradictions: tautly seductive, caustic and soothing, detached yet engaged. As complex and mutable, you might say, as the woman herself. So it’s no surprise that for her first Broadway performance in 46 years, Jane Fonda chose a story about transformation. In Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, she plays a musicologist with ALS, hoping to solve one last mystery: why Ludwig van Beethoven spent his final years, stone-deaf, writing 33 small masterpieces based upon one inferior waltz by another man. “I’m attracted to people with passionate obsessions which override things like age or illness,” says Fonda. “I found the play really visionary—the interplay between past and present, between life and death.”

Kaufman gave Fonda the part after a dinner that lasted a little over an hour. “That never happens. Never!” he says. “She was telling me things that I thought of when I was writing the script.” Fonda—who is working on a book about aging for Random House—recounts a curious coincidence. “I was writing a chapter that talked about Beethoven when I got the script,” says the 71-year-old actress, who is a classical-music fan but no expert. “I was writing about how even with infirmities, some of the great people in history—Matisse, Schweitzer, Beethoven—achieved the pinnacle of their work under very challenging circumstances related to age. So this play is the perfect thing for me to be doing right now.”

Not to diminish Fonda’s mastery of her craft, but she does acknowledge similarities with her character. “Friends see the show and say they feel like it was written for me: She expects a lot of herself. She expects a lot of others. She has a challenging relationship with her daughter. And I’m someone who can obsess.” A small laugh. “I would say she’s more like my father, though. I’m not quite as judgmental as she is.”

Fonda arrives at the Eugene O’Neill Theater with ever-present companion Tulea, a Coton de Tulear.
All Photographs by Brigitte Lacombe

“I did not anticipate doing a play — I didn’t anticipate any of this at my age,” says Fonda. “I just feel — blessed is the word. That’s the word that keeps coming up.”

The former fitness guru now stays in shape with Pilates.

“Jane got the character,” says playwright Moisés Kaufman, who offered her the role after one brief dinner. “She’s a writer, so I felt she could handle a play about ideas.”

“The way Jane understands the beats in the text is so profound,” says Kaufman, who took a lot of Fonda’s suggestions for her character during rehearsal. “She enriches the part.”

Resting before the show. Fonda has been posting a detailed blog every day since the project began. Her February 17 post included the following line: “OMG! I kid you not, and I twittered about it earlier, but, no kidding, during curtain call Tulea escaped from her (new) dog sitter and came out on stage.”

Coming Home