33 Variations at Park Square Theatre

Karen Landry and Edwin Strout in 33 Variations. Photo by Michael Hanisch.

Karen Landry and Edwin Strout in 33 Variations. Photo by Michael Hanisch.

Moisés Kaufman‘s 33 Variations (at Park Square Theatre through Nov 2) is a pool-of-light play. Played on a jumble of interlocking platforms, the play’s action takes place in apartments, offices, hospital waiting rooms, lecture halls, in New York, in Germany. Which is not to mention the huge segment of the play set in 1820s Vienna. The pool-of-light technique gives Kaufman’s affecting drama cinematic size and substance. It permits him to shuffle together the past and the present, to focus on the process of creating musical compositions (Beethoven’s “33 Variations”), scholarly books, to develop complicated family dynamics, romance, end-of-life friendships. 33 Variations is a laudably, and breath-takingly, ambitious work.

This is a play about death. In it, a scholar, Dr. Katherine Brandt, faces the muscular deterioration, and the inevitability of the grave, that goes along with her diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (a cruel disorder known as ALS; sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after the Yankee infielder who died of it). Actor Karen Landry plays the role and she is a marvel of cool and calm courage, an island of composure, as she faces her demise while the rest of the play swirls around her. She never gives in to woe-is-me self-pity. At first I was put off by Landry’s apparent blandness, but soon I was drawn in by her quiet fearlessness. I must confess that at the end Landry had me, cynical and crusty critic that I am, misting over.

Brandt is working on a book about Beethoven’s “33 Variations’; she is determined to finish it before she dies. Does she? Well, sort of. See the play and find out.

There is a down side, however (it has to be said), to the pool-of-light technique: it disperses dramatic energy. Down come the lights and up they fade on another area and once again the actors have to struggle to recreate the play’s energy. Often their scene ends before they can do this. The cumulative effect: the play sags and doesn’t have the authority that it might. That 33 Variations works is due to the power of the acting more than anything.

Another issue: Beethoven. We all know that the composer was a boorish loudmouth, but this is normally counter-balanced by portraying physical infirmities and his artistic passion. In 33 Variations, this doesn’t happen. The composer struts and preens and shouts. I began to resent him for taking me away from Landry. His faithful assistant Schindler calls him “Master”; I would have chosen a different word.

Now: on whose doorstep do we lay this problem, on Kaufman’s or actor Edwin Strout‘s? On Kaufman’s, imo. Strout is a performer of power and brio and Kaufman, with his one-note portrayal of the composer, gives him precious little to work with. However, I don’t think I’m giving much away when I reveal that Beethoven has a truly boffo scene with Brandt at the end.

On her own, Jennifer Maren gives us a dour and glumish daughter, but when she interacts with the charming Nate Cheeseman she delights. She smiles and laughs and pulls her lover close. It’s been a while since I’ve seen two actors work together so marvelously. I found them, ahem, very sexy and kudos are due to director James Rocco for making this happen (and for keeping the play reigned in). Good also are Michelle Myers, Robert-Bruce Brake and Peter Simmons.

Finally, I must wax enthusiastic about pianist Irina Elkina, whose lovely technique at the keyboard really makes 33 Variations work. Park Square seems to have a genius for assembling good piano players; their 2 Pianos 4 Hands plays in November, the 3rd (I believe) iteration of this play.

Next up at PS: The House On Mango Street, the opening play in the new theater.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His Tell Me A Story In The Dark will shortly be published by Familius, Inc. For more info please visit his website, johnolive.net.


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