The Threshold Repertory Theatre is a tricky little theater. When I walked into the studio last month to see The Mousetrap, the stage felt cramped, tight, filled with stuff everywhere.
But for 33 Variations, written by Moises Kaufman and directed by Pamela Galle, it is utterly transformed. Gone are the tight quarters, replaced by two sparse stages, separated by a thin screen and set with only a small desk and a few black benches. In one corner sits a small grand piano.
The set has to be flexible. 33 Variations combines modern day New York and Bonn, Germany, with Vienna, Austria of the 1820s. It combines the lives of composer Ludwig van Beethoven and a modern day musicologist, Dr. Katherine Brandt. Each is obsessed with completing a body of work. For Beethoven, it’s a collection of variations he wrote from a small waltz penned by Anton Diabelli, and for Brandt, it is a paper about those same variations.
That both characters are dying is the glue holding this play together.
There are a few issues to discuss (but please keep reading — there’s good news ahead). The foreign accents of some characters felt discordant and a little confusing. The two cohabitants of Beethoven’s world, Diabelli and Schindler, were both a little too dandy-riffic, too effete, and the straight-laced German shtick of Gertie in the early modern-day bits fell a little flat.
And a couple scenes didn’t quite work. At the end of the first act, all the characters met on stage, speaking similar lines at similar times. It was supposed to be intense, but instead it was cacophonous. The same can be said for a short song sung by the cast, and a dance performed at the end. They weren’t bad. They were just awkward, uncomfortable.
But, and this is a big but .. something about the Threshold’s production of 33 Variations is enchanting. It is spellbinding. I couldn’t have walked away from it, even if I wanted to.
To be fair, Kaufman’s play is brilliant. It’s well-balanced. Scenes of bitter tension are chased by scenes of lighthearted laughter, reminding viewers that even in the darkest of times, one can find cause to smile. In fact, in those dark times, one must find a reason to smile. 33 Variations offers many.
For one, it shows how beautiful relationships are forged from nothing — a chance meeting between a nurse and his patient’s daughter; a dying musicologist and a woman who shares her passion for Beethoven. These meetings change the lives of our characters, allowing theatergoers to be flies on the wall as the characters transform themselves into something better. We see the workaholic, disapproving mother come to accept her daughter’s love; we see the daughter fall in love; we see Beethoven finally finish a work that plagues him for years, but only after accepting help from his closest friend and ally.
Those are the moments in which 33 Variations is at its strongest — focusing on the relationships between the characters. The overall chemistry of the actors is wonderful. They’re there for each other, supporting one another in every scene, from Beethoven, Diabelli, and Schindler, to the Brandts and their nurse and their friend. Lynda Harvey-Carter, as Dr. Brandt, begins the play with joy and anticipation — she all but glows in the first few scenes — and later portrays the heart-wrenching truths of ALS/Lou Gehrig’s disease with grace and dignity.
Finally, it’s important to note that 33 Variations would not work without Dr. Ricky David Duckett, their pianist. In an achingly gorgeous scene, Beethoven, played by Rob Maniscalco, is composing. As he sings and talks and sketches, Duckett plays, beautifully illustrating Maniscalco’s monologue with music. It is magic.
So much of the play has that sense of magic that it’s easy to overlook those few, nitpicky flaws I mentioned earlier, and I congratulate the cast and crew on a job very well done.