A Steinway & Sons grand piano occupies a place of honor in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of "33 Variations," Moise's Kaufman's eloquent play-with-music examining obsession and inspiration.
The piano commands center stage. Around it revolves separate but related pursuits by two perfectionists, unfolding simultaneously across two centuries. It's a bold move locating pianist George Lepauw -- who performs live throughout -- squarely within the action.
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"33 Variations"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: TimeLine Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 327-5252 or timelinetheatre.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 21
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Tickets: $32, $42
Parking: $10 valet or street parking available
Rating: For adults; mature themes and brief nudity
But director Nick Bowling's staging works. Unlikely as it may seem, Lepauw's presence feels organic. Moreover, it's as intrinsic to Bowling's poignant, intensely personal, beautifully acted production as music is to Kaufman's principle characters: a modern-day musicologist suffering from ALS, and the increasingly hearing-impaired Ludwig van Beethoven, both of them struggling to complete their life's work before they run out of time.
Dr. Katherine Brandt (Janet Ulrich Brooks, an actress of enormous depth and intelligence) is a prickly, accomplished 21st-century musicologist suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). With the clock ticking, Brandt wants desperately to unravel the mystery of "a genius ... obsessed with mediocrity." Specifically, she wants to learn how a run-of-the-mill waltz by 19th-century music publisher Anton Diabelli (Michael Kingston, a most perceptive clown) inspired Beethoven to compose the masterwork known as the "Diabelli Variations," segments of which are beautifully performed by Lepauw.
Time is also running out for the ailing Beethoven (Terry Hamilton, who masterfully embodies the ferocity that results when genius and desperation collide). After rejecting Diabelli's invitation to write a variation on his theme, Beethoven reconsiders and spends 1819 to 1823 composing 33 of them -- while simultaneously working on his revolutionary Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis, whose Kyrie underscores the production's most moving moments.
Set mostly in Bonn, Germany, the play shifts across centuries. In the 21st century, Katherine scours the Beethoven archives with help from curator Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (a nicely frosty Juliet Hart) in an attempt to divine the mind of the master. In the 19th, we find Beethoven struggling to complete his variations, assisted by his protective friend and devoted secretary Anton Schindler, played with affection and a canny sense of humor by Matthew Krause.
Back in the present, there's Katherine's daughter Clara (played with disarming authenticity by Jessie Fisher), a restlessly creative, career-jumping young woman who has a strained relationship with her mother, a single-minded academic who fears nothing so much as her daughter's mediocrity. Also on hand is Katherine's nurse Mike (the endearing, unfailingly decent Ian Paul Custer), a young man of great insight and boundless affection who's in love with Clara. Fisher and Custer are quite simply ideal.
The play has humor and heart, although it is a bit fussy in spots. And it's smartly written, even if Kaufman tends to reiterate his points more than is necessary. Moreover "33 Variations" contains some wonderfully moving moments. Several involve Mike Tutaj's arresting video projections of scrolling scores and flurries of notes -- a physical manifestation of one man's genius.
So, why does Beethoven do it? For profit? To show up a presumptuous acquaintance? Or, as Kaufman suggests, is it because Beethoven recognizes the potential for transforming innocuous passages from a middling tune into great art?
That the mundane can give rise to the magnificent is the crux of "33 Variations." But Kaufman's play is more than an examination of the creative process. It's about friendship, devotion, reconciliation, love and the immeasurable value of simple yet meaningful moments between us and our loved ones. Those are, essentially, our lives' masterworks.