Off The Ground

Jane Fonda must be feeling like $10 million bucks these days. Make it $100 million. 33 Variations, the Broadway play I saw her perform in this afternoon, is a bracingly well-written, inventively staged, and deeply moving piece about fighting the demons of finality while living to the fullest, and it’s given Fonda’s comeback effort (which began about five years ago, give or take) the lustre and respectability that Hollywood failed to provide with Monster-in-Law (’05) and Georgia Rules (’07).

Fonda, yes, agreed to star in these films of her own free will but God, what a putrid and fallow place Hollywood can seem at times, especially from the perspective of the New York stage. But there’s nothing like a crackerjack Broadway play to put the rose back in everyone’s cheeks.

How good is Fonda? Very. She’s obviously deeply into what this play is about — love, passion, giving your utmost until the last. She’s confident, focused, commanding, and very connected. But so are costars Samantha Mathis, Colin Hanks (his first Broadway role), Zack Grenier, Don Amendiola and Susan Kellerman.

Directed and written by Moises Kaufman, 33 Variations doesn’t officially open until March 9th, but I can at least offer some generic alpha vibes at this stage of the game. It’s a good thing all around for Fonda, her costars, Kaufman and the audience. I left the theatre an hour or so ago feeling more than a little turned on. (I can’t do anything about the asswipes out there who will interpret that to mean something other than spiritual arousal.) The first thing I said to Roger Durling, who saw it with me, was, “I could see that again.”

Fonda plays Katherine Brandt, a somewhat emotionally remote music scholar (at least as far as Clara, her daughter, is concerned) trying to understand why Ludwig van Beethoven — whose career and powers were beginning to decline, and who needed money — spent 3 years writing 33 variations on a mediocre waltz written by a music publisher in 1819.

Kaufman’s play is an ensemble piece, however, and this involves putting Beethoven himself (Grenier) as well as his assistant Schindler (Erik Steele) as well as Diabelli (Amendolia), the original composer of the mediocre waltz, smack dab alongside the present-day characters.

Brandt’s quest, which takes her to Bonn, becomes a race against time since she’s facing a severe health problem in the form of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The gradual falling of the curtain obviously affects her relationship with Clara (Mathis) and increasingly involves her daughter’s good-guy boyfriend Mike (Hanks), a nurse, as well as a soulful German woman (Kellermann) who watches over Beethoven’s archives in Bonn.

The play, okay, could use a tiny bit of refining here and there, but it’s really quite together at this point. I was delighted how a straight play about a gifted composer who understood dance and song would include a communal sing-along at one point (which reminded me of the singing of “Wise Up” in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s Magnolia) as well as a tender little dance number.

14 thoughts on “Off The Ground

  1. So, this “alpha” thing you’re using: that gonna be around for a while? ‘Cause that faux-hipster slang could get real annoying real soon.

    Also, you feeling “turned on, aroused” by the piece isn’t the best of marketing. “Gives Jeffrey Wells a hard-on” just doesn’t sell like “Two Thumbs Up.”

  2. Good news. Thanks for the review, Jeff. I wasn’t sure what to make of this one so I was sort of waiting for the reviews but your word is good enough for me. I actually have a buddy in town who wants to see a play next week and is a conductor/composer so this will be perfect. Feel free to keep the stage reviews coming while you’re in town. If you qualify you should join TDF – lots of shows for around $30 or so. Seems like the blog would qualify you as a “theater professional” if you’re writing about the shows.

    August: Osage County is the one must-see now playing. Don’t miss it. Do you have any interest in seeing Sam Mendes’ Cherry Orchard at BAM?

  3. Hollywood has never been that welcoming to older actresses, whereas theatre has been much kinder. Glad to hear that Fonda’s acting in a wonderfully written, well directed play.

  4. Wells, you really live for conflict. Here’s a wild idea: instead of ignoring the nice guy who asks you a question to address the jerk who’s insulting you, you could do the reverse some time. Just a thought.

  5. And to think … just 5 years ago, the hoi polloi were spitting on Janey at book signings and trying to smear John Kerry by Photoshopping his mug next to hers. Those photos just made me wish she was running for POTUS instead of him.

    Her blog is fun, too. I’m thinking she may be the first celebrity blogger to actually write about her job, rather than fashion and diet tips or knee-jerk politics. Besides, you just gotta love a 70-year-old feminist icon who shouts out “cunt” on live morning TV.

  6. The only interesting thing about GEORGIA RULE is it’s the only time I can remember where an actress spent an entire film doing an impersonation of her father.

    Maybe the worst film Garry Marshall has ever made though, which is saying a lot.

  7. Hollywood has never been that welcoming to older actresses, whereas theatre has been much kinder. Glad to hear that Fonda’s acting in a wonderfully written, well directed play.

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