If you had only a relatively short time to live,
what would you want to do in your remaining time? Complete that Elvis paint-by-numbers portrait? Binge-watch The Sopranos
one more time?
Perhaps, but none of those are the choices the two principals make in 33 Variations, now at the Beck Center. Written by Moises Kaufman, this play jumps centuries as it tracks two dying people: Ludwig van Beethoven and the fictional American musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt.
The premise of the play is intriguing, as these two very different people pursue compulsions that defy logic and upset their respective friends and contemporaries. But a frequently limp and bloated script and some off-kilter performances undermine what could have been an involving intellectual exercise.
Katherine has been diagnosed with ALS, the horrifying degenerative disease. Beset with relationship troubles with her twenty-something daughter Clara, Katherine chooses to spend her waning days looking for an answer to an obscure question: Why did Beethoven devote his own final years to writing 33 variations of a mediocre waltz penned by the music publisher Anton Diabelli?
Her present-day investigation, much of which happens in Bonn, Germany, is intercut with moments from Beethoven's waning life in the early 19th century. The composer, who is going blind and has many ailments, blusters and bellows while he obsesses over these curious compositions.
The script by Kaufman is at once too clever for its own good and not clever enough. Composed of 33 scenes (get it?), the play spends more time than necessary tracing the rather mundane mother-daughter conflicts in the Brandt family. (Mom thinks Clara changes jobs too frequently! Gasp!)
Add to that a mutual attraction shared by Clara and Mike, a hospital nurse she meets when accompanying mom to her ALS check-ups. Trouble is, neither Clara nor Mike is all that interesting and their hesitant, halting romance seems lifted from a 1950s' "what to do on a date" instructional video.
The Beethoven scenes have more bite and benefit from the fact that they're talking about things that matter, such as Beethoven's compositions and work process. As Beethoven, a bloviating Dana Hart bullies his friend and assistant played with amusing forbearance by Trey Gilpin. And a nicely modulated Brian Pedaci adds some grace notes as Diabelli.
The other performances, however, are not entirely on key. In the demanding role of Katherine, Maryann Nagel conveys her character's ever-worsening physical plight with apparent accuracy and compassion.
But we never quite feel the depth of Katherine's monomania for unearthing the answer to the Diabelli Variations conundrum. Indeed, as she plows through documents in the German museum, aided by a German musicologist (played ably by Mary Alice Beck), it often seems like Katherine is dutifully completing a mundane research assignment, not pursuing her Holy Grail.
Kaufman brings out some interesting factoids about Beethoven's composing style, including how researchers use ultraviolet light to detect various drafts of a particular piece. But these pinpoints of insight are few and far between.
Meanwhile, more time is wasted with the subplot involving Clara and Mike. While he has some nice flashes of endearing awkwardness, Matt O'Shea's Mike is not nearly endearing enough. And Debbie Keppler, as Clara, delivers her lines with a tone-deaf hollowness that sounds more like a cold reading than a performance.
Director Sarah May, a pro with immense theatrical talents, here seems flummoxed by the material. Many of the present-day scenes play too slowly, perhaps trying to achieve a spot-on enactment of how ALS actually affects its victims. But this verisimilitude is obtained at the cost of making the show more ponderous than it need be.
Fortunately, there are many snatches of Beethoven's work, played by pianist Stuart Raleigh. These brief bursts of music, short as they are, capture the elusive magic that this 2½ hour (with intermission) production is unfortunately unable to fully grasp.