Eugene O’Neill Theater
Jane Fonda’s return to Broadway after 46 years “is not to be missed,” said Stephanie Zacharek in New York. At 71, the iconic actress gives a bravura performance as Dr. Katherine Brandt, an American academic trying to uncover a musical mystery while battling the atrophying effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease. Katherine’s steely determination and sharp wit recall Fonda’s characters in such films as They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and Klute, and a subplot in which a dying and emotionally distant Katherine must reconcile with her daughter poignantly echoes the actress’ own relationship with her father, Henry. But it’s “the physicality of Fonda’s performance that sticks with you.” What makes it special is the way “she uses her trim, sturdy frame to suggest the myriad ways in which our bodies can ultimately betray our minds.”
It’s too bad Fonda didn’t pick a better play for her return, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. Katherine’s quest to discover why Beethoven spent his latter years obsessed with a musical trifle—a pedestrian waltz by Anton Diabelli, which the composer spun into 33 Variations—is writer-director Moisés Kaufman’s thin hook for “a sort of cultural-metaphysical detective story.” But the twists and turns he creates fall flat. Katherine’s struggles are portentously “presented in counterpoint with vignettes in which Beethoven struggles in grand genius style with his failing health, his deafness, and his music.” But the parallels feel forced and unconvincing, as does the unlikely “emotional thawing” between Katherine and her daughter.
Kaufman’s play may be “overly schematic,” but his production is “elegant,” said David Rooney in Variety. And Fonda’s commanding performance isn’t the only great one here. The “nimble playing” of offstage pianist Diane Walsh masterfully deconstructs the Diabelli variations’ intricate phrases, allowing the audience to “share directly in the exaltation of Beethoven’s artistry and Katherine’s discoveries.” Although Zach Greiner, as Beethoven, “veers toward cartoonishness,” he’s nonetheless convincing. A moment in which he leans against Fonda’s Katherine to communicate a “union of pain shared across time” is one of many in 33 Variations that will linger in your head.