In 1819, fledgling publisher Anton Diabelli wrote a piece of music for which he then invited 50 Vienna composers to compose their own variations. Initially Ludwig van Beethoven rejected the invitation, calling the waltz ordinary. Then he had a change of heart and not only wrote one piece of music based on Diabelli’s original piece, but 33 different variations.
This is the story that unfolds in “33 Variations,” now onstage at the La Jolla Playhouse written, and directed by Moises Kaufman.
Kaufman has cleverly intertwined this idea with a present day story of musicologist Katherine Brandt (Jayne Atkinson). She wants to travel to Bonn and study Beethoven’s archives and see the variations he wrote first-hand. Her daughter Claire (Laura Odeh) knows her mother is ill and shouldn’t leave the country. Claire tries to convince her mother’s male nurse, Mike (Ryan King), to agree. Mike, who soon becomes Claire’s boyfriend, tells her it’s out of his hands.
Meanwhile, back in 1819, Diabelli (Don Amendolia) is ecstatic that Beethoven (Zach Grenier) will be part of the published book. After three years of waiting, however, the penniless Diabelli becomes frustrated. The more Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), Beethoven’s aide, rushes his boss to finish, the more it seems Beethoven unravels.
Kaufman (“The Laramie Project,” “I Am My Own Wife”) has done a splendid job in merging past and present into an engaging play. “It’s the story of a little piece of music that Beethoven wrote near the end of his life, but what excites me is it answers why he was so obsessed over it,” said Kaufman.
The play’s two stories reveal trepidation and doubt.
Zach Grenier offers a character perhaps puzzled and trapped by his own genius and his ailments.
And Brandt is liberated in her portrayal of Katherine. As she discovers Beethoven through the notes of his music, she also understands more about her own legacy.
Odeh’s Claire is funny, a loner, infatuated and - as illustrated by nearly everything her mother says to her - unsure how her mother feels about her. “You have beautiful hair,” Katherine says. Claire beams with pride for only a second until her mother quickly adds, “I wish you would do something with it.”
Diane Walsh, a stage and concert pianist, is onstage and plays the music that goes through Beethoven’s head as he writes.
“33 Variations” is a mix of intellectual discovery, seeing the work of a Tony- and Emmy-nominated director, and getting wrapped up in adept performances all while enjoying some iconic music.
“33 Variations” plays April 8 - May 4 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
For tickets or more information call (858) 550-1010 or go to