In Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations, Jane Fonda plays an American musicologist—a Beethoven specialist—who decides to go ahead with a research trip to Bonn, Germany, even though she's just been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). It's a grim prognosis for her, but maybe it's worse for us: Nothing can kill a night of pleasure at the theater faster than a play about death, life, and the meaning of art, the kind of thing in which characters exist only as mouthpieces for disembodied ideas.
But 33 Variations isn't, blessedly, that sort of play: Kaufman, who also directed this production, clearly wants to keep our nerve endings alive, not deaden them. The title refers to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, in which the composer used Anton Diabelli's waltz as a springboard for his own rich but playful ideas. (The pianist and musical director here, Diane Walsh, interprets the work with a graceful touch, allowing plenty of air and light to flow through it.) Fonda's Dr. Katherine Brandt is so obsessed with the genesis of the Variations that she can't quite see them for what they are, just as she can't quite connect with her daughter, Clara (Samantha Mathis)—their relationship has always been cordial but not exactly warm. It's further stressed as Clara, while struggling with the reality of her mother's illness, embarks on a fledgling romance with the nurse who's been caring for her, Mike (played by Colin Hanks; he and Mathis perform a charming, tentative courtship duet).
The action in 33 Variations shifts not just between countries but also from century to century, and its structure is ably served by Derek McLane's set design, which makes effective use of a series of giant sliding screens covered with sheets of music, each one like a tile in a mosaic—or a portion of a grand, mysterious secret. Beethoven himself (played by Zach Grenier) shows up as a harried, distracted genius with a sense of humor, and Dr. Brandt eventually unlocks some of the mysteries behind his joyous, expressive work. But Kaufman doesn't just run roughshod over his characters on the way to the big epiphany. He allows them room to make plenty of wisecracks, as well as mistakes; he gives them space to be human. Fonda meets the challenge like a warrior queen. She may be playing an excessively cerebral academic, but the physicality of her performance is what sticks with you. She uses her trim, sturdy frame to suggest the myriad ways in which our bodies—one way or another, either through aging or ill health—can ultimately betray our minds.
That's not to say Fonda turns the play into a downer: If anything, she treats that betrayal as a grim joke, an approach that suits the unpretentious spirit of the material. What 33 Variations suggests, ultimately, is that when ideas breathe at all, it's because human beings have given shape to them in the first place. We're their alphabet, their notation, and the form we give them can linger, miraculously, even after we're gone.