Forever Fonda: Jane Looks Perky as Dying Patient in 33 Variations

heilpern 21 Forever Fonda: Jane Looks Perky as Dying Patient in 33 VariationsAt the risk of seeming ungracious about Jane Fonda, I must confess that I didn’t quite recognize her when she first came briskly onstage at the start of 33 Variations. In her first Broadway role in 46 years, the star, at 71, looks simply marvelous! Not that I expected her to look anything less. But it was almost as if no time had elapsed at all since Klute.

Ms. Fonda, furthermore, is playing a terminally ill musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt, who’s dying horribly of Lou Gehrig’s disease—and she still looks wonderful! In fact, she seems to grow more and more attractive the closer her increasingly frail character comes to its last gasp. From walker to wheelchair to sayonara-it’s-been-swell, the dignified, forever beautiful Ms. Fonda resolutely endures.

That is more than can be said for the play. Written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, 33 Variations is a shamelessly manipulative stew of Lifetime Movie mixed with ghoulish biopic, pseudo-historical drama, a splash of Amadeus and faux art. And all in the name of refined Highbrow Culture at the theater!

Of all the choices Mr. Kaufman might have made, why, I wonder, did he choose a heroine dying of cancer? His ailing Dr. Brandt is obsessed with solving the mystery of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, the work that obsessed the ailing composer. (Aha! They’re both sick!) She travels courageously to Germany to unlock the secret of the Variations and, in sub-Stoppardian manner, the playwright crisscrosses his drama in time, revealing Beethoven struggling for years with his ineffable “33 Variations.” (The live piano accompaniment by Diane Walsh during the action is exceptional.)

But Zach Grenier’s overripe performance as an irascible, blustery Beethoven is a loud cartoon, and Mr. Kaufman—best known for his docudramas (including The Laramie Project)—might have resisted the deaf jokes. He might also have skipped his coy—and horribly old-fashioned—romantic subplot involving Dr. Brandt’s partially estranged daughter and an emotionally dim male nurse wracked with torment about holding hands on their first date.

The intrepid Dr. Brandt’s line about Beethoven—“I didn’t know he liked soup”—only serves to remind us that the play is no Wit. Margaret Edson’s brilliant 1998 metaphysical drama of ideas, with an unforgettable performance by Kathleen Chalfant, explored a professor’s death from cancer, the life of the mind and the eternal mystery of great poetry. By comparison, I’m afraid that the arty pretensions of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations amount to little more than showbiz.

 

ARE OUR TIMES too serious for Noël Coward? His patented brand of brittle flippancy for dire times is thought to be eternally witty. To sing stoically as the boat goes down is the master’s nonchalant, stiff-upper-lip credo.

“Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers,” as Elyot puts it in Coward’s 1930 masterwork, Private Lives. “Let’s blow trumpets and squeakers and enjoy the party as much as we can, like small, quite idiotic schoolchildren.”

If Coward’s very idiotic 1941 Blithe Spirit were nearly as good as Private Lives, I might still be enjoying the party. But I’m not so certain that either Coward’s farce or its current revival at the Shubert Theatre are quite enough cause for celebratory trumpets and squeakers.

Michael Blakemore’s strangely subpar production opens by sending the wrong signal with a recording of “Someday I’ll Find You.” The signature Coward song from Private Lives only reminds us further of what we’re about to miss. Other musical interludes from the hallowed Coward songbook follow—accompanying quaintly captioned introductions to each big scene. But they only slow the action when it should be dancing on air—hot air—while the dated songs themselves give off the nostalgic whiff of an anemic Palm Court recital performed by three little old ladies in evening wear on a drizzly day in Frinton-on-Sea.

Coward’s self-described “very gay, very superficial comedy about a ghost” concerns marriage and infidelity, the intervention of a mad medium and a supercilious upper-class novelist who’s haunted by the ghost of his first wife (and then his second). The revival has its compensations—Angela Lansbury’s adorably nuts Madame Arcati among them—but, alas, Coward’s creaky brand of arch frivolity left me imagining a new song, titled “I’m Not So Terribly in Love With Noël Anymore.”

The master could write dialogue—as he put it happily—“by the yard,” and he wrote Blithe Spirit in six absinthe-drenched days to settle a few pressing debts. But I’m with John Gielgud (no less), who commented with customary tactlessness after seeing the show on its opening night: “I thought it was terribly overwritten. It was a good joke, but he spun it out too much.”

Mr. Blakemore—the veteran director whose production of Michael Frayn’s classic backstage farce Noises Off is legend—has faltered uncharacteristically here. Coward’s plays demand a superior carriage trade production, yet the set design of Blithe Spirit’s spiffy upper-class drawing room is forlornly drab. And Mr. Blakemore hasn’t, as yet, got the comic timing of his distinguished ensemble right. Frivolity is best taken lightly. But the pace of the piece is too labored, the comedy too broad.

Madame Arcati (the role originally played by the sublime English eccentric, Margaret Rutherford) traditionally steals the show, and Angela Lansbury’s madcap Arcati is no exception. Though very occasionally seeming uncertain, the legendary actress sails on regardless, and what appears to be her own manically balletic version of Nijinsky’s Les Noces is a riot.

But the glamorous Christine Ebersole, who possesses an innate comic flair, isn’t quite right as the ghost of the upper-class Brit, Elvira, while Jayne Atkinson’s priggish Ruth is on the earnest side. Rupert Everett, swaggering indolently about the place as supercilious Charles, is an ideal Coward actor, however. (An ideal Wildean one, too). Mr. Everett knows how to be stylishly, effortlessly superficial, as if to the manor born. Plus, he can balance a cup of tea on his knee with a piece of cake.

 

THERE’S JUST ROOM for a word—and a rave—about the revolutionary production of Thornton Wilder’s iconic Our Town (1938) at the Barrow Street Theatre in the Village. It’s a model of everything fine that can be achieved in a revival of a mythic play.

Its gifted director, the Chicago-based David Cromer, who also plays the Stage Manager, brought us the wonderful and modest Off Broadway musical Adding Machine last season (which reinvented Elmer Rice’s 1923 Expressionist play). Now his intimate staging of Wilder’s apparent potboiler has made the frequently staged play shatteringly fresh.

How the new production appears to exist simultaneously in time past and present is some kind of theater miracle. This is no Our Town as a comforting slice of folksy Americana. (Wilder never intended it to be that.) The production’s rhythmic, unfolding picture of small-town American life is extraordinarily real and immediate, and its abiding spirit still speaks to us. The sentiment is honestly earned; the utterly natural acting of the splendid ensemble is admirably artless.

This is a great production that takes us to the heartbeat of Thornton Wilder’s original tragic intention. And it takes us there quietly, without fuss. In its vast simplicity and force, Our Town is exhorting us all to live every minute, every second, every day of our lives as if we are blessed.

jheilpern@observer.com