Frequently in life, the variations are better than the original waltz.
Or, to put this thought another way, our digressions and modifications often deepen and expand on our original tentative steps — be they in work, love or marriage — covering up fear, mediocrity and smallness of mind. This can be true even where our late-in-life variations are actually the product of a delusion. And who among us is not deluded about something?
That's perhaps the main theme of Moises Kaufman's "33 Variations," a play, now in Chicago premiere by the TimeLine Theatre, about the curious decision of one Ludwig van Beethoven to write 33 variations of Anton Diabelli's second-rate little waltz, even though he could have been spending his precious remaining time (he was going deaf) working on a mass or a fugue or another symphony of his own creation.
Kaufman is interested not only in why Beethoven, a genius, became so obsessed with apparent mediocrity (what did he see in the waltz that which others did not?), but also in how his arguably most brilliant works flowed from such a source. I find this a fascinating issue: We always think of our greatest artistic works as born in purity, yet some are bastard offspring.
I last saw "33 Variations" on Broadway in 2009, with Jane Fonda, no less, in the lead role. Fonda didn't play Beethoven, of course, but a wound-tight Beethoven scholar named Katherine, who is desperate to find some answers to these questions before her own health gives out. Kaufman thus simultaneously tells of a modern quest by a dying academic in the Beethoven archives of Bonn, Germany, alongside Beethoven's actual writing of the variations. Kaufman even gives his testy professor an equivalent of Diabelli's mediocre waltz: a daughter who is struggling to decide between a career or a man for whom her mother has a good deal of contempt.
But then, late-in-life illnesses invariably scramble those power structures and certainties, don't they?
Director Nick Bowling's TimeLine production, staged at Stage 773, is, on balance, better than the Broadway production. That's mostly a consequence of the usual things that Chicago, and Bowling in particular, do well. This is a simpler, more intimate, more personal staging. One of the devices of the piece is that you hear the music being created (in one story) and researched (in the other) played live on the piano. In New York, that was off to the side; Bowling puts his Steinway center stage and has everything revolve around the playing of the Beethoven specialist George Lepauw.
Chicago also has an especially talented videographer named Mike Tutaj, who's at his best here, forging a truly breathtaking little sequence wherein the grainy images on a hospital X-ray morph into a musical staff with a cascade of beautiful notes. And Chicago has Janet Ulrich Brooks, who has, progressively, become an essential Chicago actor and whose unsentimental work here is quite startlingly present and moving. Terry Hamilton makes for a fascinating Beethoven, too, even if he misses a few of the sharper edges. And, as the daughter dealing with a dying and defiant mom, Jessie Fisher is very credible, as is Ian Paul Custer, who plays her goofy nurse-boyfriend. But the performance that surprises the most is by Matthew Krause, who plays Anton Schindler, Beethoven's companion, servant and biographer, and whose variations on what could be a prosaic role are full of complexity, love and insecurity.
Meanwhile, the well-cast Juliet Hart offers an amusing portrait of Gertrude Ladenbruger, the tart German keeper of the Beethoven sketchbooks.
"33 Variations" has a lot of variations of its own when it comes to dramatic style: Some sections are realistic in tone, some are self-aware, some rewind scenes on the character's whim. It's all very interesting material from one of the American theater's great experimenters, but a bit overstuffed in the faux-Stoppardian mode and, in a few spots, a tad too pat in its explication of theme. You see the machinery at work, and the production has a few fussy spots of its own. That said, Bowling mostly keeps his and his actors' feet firmly planted on the Chicago ground, and this serves what is, at its core, a hugely intelligent drama that will definitely please a lot of the searching older folks who especially love the idea-fused seasons at TimeLine.
One other variation emerges in Chicago with particular potency: the difficulty of finding endings in life.
In the very best sections of this show, the central character and her daughter, both of whom love each other, come to realize that lives never end with all ends tied up, goodbyes said and periods placed. Spending time with loved ones, knowing not the hour of the final curtain, is the best and only finale for which most of us can hope.
When: Through Oct. 21
Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $32-$42 at 773-327-5252 or timelinetheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye