When Jane Fonda strides on stage in 33 Variations, her first appearance on Broadway in over forty years, it’s clear that she’s nervous; at the performance I saw, she even muffed a line or two. But her talent as an actress (and icon) is based in a kind of deep anxiety about herself and the world, so these evident nerves don’t impede her performance here; if anything, the spectacle of her emotionalism, which she’s always trying to rein in and control, is even more compelling on stage than it has been when mediated by film. As a young and then middle-aged woman, Fonda surfed the zeitgeist with such desperate vigor that she managed to define roles for women in society in several distinct periods. With her retirement from movies in 1990, she pulled away from us, as if she had been exhausted by the rollercoaster ride of her kaleidoscopic exhibitionism, which had led to at least two performances that still stand as benchmarks for the art of acting: Gloria in They Shoot Horses,Don’t They? (1969) and Bree Daniels in Klute (1971). Fonda’s been away for so long that even she must wonder what she has to offer us; always anxious to please and conquer new territory, she has even started a charming blog (janefonda.com) about her experience doing this play. On her blog, she touchingly and repeatedly wishes that her father Henry could see her in this play; above and beyond everything else about her, this is a woman whose heart is tethered to Daddy, for good and ill.
Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations suggests a polished combination of Margaret Edson’s Wit, a 1940s melodrama, a modern romantic comedy, and an enlightening lecture on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Fonda finally gets to play the disapproving Henry Fonda parent herself with her beleaguered daughter (a drabbed-down Samantha Mathis), and these are her most effective scenes; otherwise, she doesn’t have that much to do aside from sketching in the stages of her character’s deterioration from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Kaufman has provided Fonda with a sidekick (Susan Kellermann) who seems to exist only to help her out at all times and crack a few jokes, like a German Thelma Ritter; meanwhile, her daughter has a romance with a male nurse, played by Colin Hanks in an expert comic performance that looks and sounds exactly like his father Tom, circa The Money Pit (1986). Derek McLane’s diverting scenic design proves a not inconsiderable help in providing a semblance of coherence between the play’s plots.
Kaufman has another play about Beethoven (Zach Grenier) going on with the other four elements in this palatable stew, and though playing Beethoven is about as thankless as playing Christ or Shakespeare, Grenier manages quite well, suggesting both a real man and a savant marked by the gods. The pianist Diane Walsh plays the Diabelli Variations for us while Kaufman’s characters get into the nitty-gritty of how it was composed, and this is maybe the most interesting part of the evening; though I was familiar with this Beethoven piece, the mini-lectures on it in 33 Variations did make me hear it differently, thoughtfully, and when the cast takes the stage at the end for a minuet, it feels unaccountably moving. There is only the most tenuous intellectual connection between Fonda’s star turn and the subject of Beethoven’s music, but all the varied ingredients of 33 Variations prove enjoyable in their own right, and it’s great to see Fonda tackle this theatrical vehicle with all of her old bravery and intensity.