Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Intermission Talk 3.17.09

Reviewing "33 Variations,"

"Our Town" & "Distracted"

by Tony Vellela

Buried deep inside Moises Kaufman's new play "33 Variations" is an actual theme, one that the playwright himself may not consciously realize. And since he also directed, the play was deprived of that 'second set of eyes' to offer criticism during its development. This invented tale of a musicologist whose health is in decline [the compelling Jane Fonda] sets out to discover the reason behind Ludwig Van Beethoven's obsession with creating variations on a seemingly innocuous melody written by a wannabe composer named Anton Diabelli, whose real profession is music publisher.

Fonda's character, Dr. Clara Brandt, leaves behind her adult daughter [the forthright Samantha Mathis] and travels to Bonn, where Beethoven's papers and notes are housed, straining the only personal relationship Clara has, and placing her on a journey that evolves into a last great challenge. As Lou Gehrig's Disease compromises her abilities over time, Kaufman contrasts the woman's conviction to finish her quest with Beethoven's drive to write more and more variations in the face of his own decline, including hearing loss. It is a predictable comparison, however well-acted.

While this mystery cum inspiration creed holds some interest, the play only obliquely answers the 'why' question behind the great master's years-long devotion to writing so many variations. The production does an agreeable job entertaining as his compositions pile one on top of another, ably aided by pianist Diane Walsh, positioned just off the stage in the front of the house, who plays snatches of his work. But Dr. Brandt refuses to give in to the limitations on her agility and mobility, and only grudgingly accepts the help of her daughter, and her new-found boyfriend [the cuddly Colin Hanks], who is, conveniently, a nurse, as they both relocate to Bonn. Mathis and Hanks share some of the more painfully written scenes of awkward dating, more appropriate for a story placed in 1965. They, like others, engage in annoying fourth-wall breaking.

It is the daughter who holds the key to the buried theme. The object of great and growing concern for her mother, she has been working as a painter, a sculptor and a costume designer, but is thinking of moving over to set design, and the mother is worried that she will never be good at anything if she tries everything. The daughter is creative. The mother is analytical. And therein lies the answer to the riddle.

When the daughter hears a recording of the original Diabelli composition that set Beethoven off, she remarks that she finds it pleasant, an enjoyable melody. That's it. A creative person seeing [or in this case, hearing] a real, and satisfying creation, a likely reason for the master to have adopted it as the basis for his own 'creations.' In the daughter's profession, she takes something [a play, a form, an idea] that she believes is worthy, and applies her own creative talents to make its potential actualized. This is not something her mother is equipped to do, or possibly even understand. And this is a theme that would have been worth developing - the difference between people who create and people who analyze the work of people who create.

Fonda's much anticipated return to Broadway after forty-six years has catapulted the play into a 'must-see' event, but it is her stiff-resolve performance, territory not unfamiliar to her as an actress, that makes this an interesting event, not the play itself.

All the Big Themes - from the most joyful to the most tragic - reside together easily in Thornton Wilder's classic, often-underappreciated masterwork, "Our Town." And under the imaginative direction of David Cromer, the current Barrow Street Theatre revival offers a fresh opportunity to witness this great drama's depth and durability.

Paul Newman, who portrayed the Stage Manager at the Westport Country Playhouse, and later on Broadway, once told me that he had never experienced the kind of rapt attention from an audience that this play engendered, he said, "not even in the monologues in 'Sweet Bird of Youth,' was that kind of attention paid, and reverence."

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

It is appropriate to revere the skills and talents of this great American writer; it is death to apply it to the play. Thankfully, Cromer does not, and audiences downtown are the better for it. Also performing as the Stage Manager character, he eschews all sentimentality, while managing an easy connection to his audience. Turning the three-quarter round staging area into an advantage, his Grover's Corners residents sit amongst us, talk around us, walk, run and gossip right next to us. Cromer's inclination to force spontaneity sometimes leads him to overuse overlapping dialogue, a choice that robs Wilder's text of some of its most poetic sequences. Placing a few actors behind a curtain jilts us from genuinely light-hearted moments.

Among this cast, James McMenamin's George, Kati Brazda's Mrs. Webb and Robert Beitzel's Howie Newsome most convincingly inhabit their roles, in spirit and of their era. As Simon Stimson, the negative center of the piece, Jonathan Mastro is believeably erratic. A lingering lethargy touches the menfolk [Ken Marks' Mr. Webb and Jeff Still's Doc Gibbs]. And Jennifer Grace, as Emily, ricochets between feckless and pedantic. But as Mrs. Gibbs, Ronete Levenson seems devoid of warmth, almost a scold, appropriately ascetic, but humorless.

Compared to the strengths and surprises [especially the notoriously troublesome Act Three] in the overall production, these observations don't cancel out the impact it delivers. Everything Old is New Again.

Wilder's womenfolk, he points out, "...cooked three meals a day - one of 'em for twenty years, the other for forty - and no summer vacation. They brought up two children apiece, washed, cleaned the house - and never a nervous breakdown." There's a lesson in there somewhere for "Mama," the character Cynthia Nixon plays in Lisa Loomer's new work, "Distracted." She tries to squeeze in a peace mantra with her yoga each morning to face the grueling task of raising one child in an upscale suburban house stocked with appliances, high-tech gadgets and electronic diversions.

It is Loomis's treatise, poorly conceived and even more poorly presented, that today's 'world' is choking us with these diversions - distractions - and they keep us from focusing on basics, including the care and treatment of troubled children, who may be troubled children because of their influence. Mama's nine-year-old boy suffers from some version of hyperactivity. His terrified mom embarks on a multi-road quest to discover what is causing her son to be so disruptive in school, and so ornery at home. This quest leads her to, and through, any number of popular and/or esoteric cause theories and their attendant cures or treatments, many based on administering drugs to him, a course of action from which she recoils, and ultimately attempts. New Age herbs, bio-feedback, behavior modification and blaming Dad's genes all come in for examination.

What is so desperately sad is that the subject merits serious consideration, and when Loomis attempts to leaven the topic with jump-cut scenes, sitcom humor, cartoonish characters, a set design as frantic as the inside of a video game, and more amateur theatrics in her script than the fare in Andy and Judy's barn, the result is demeaning. Add to that, a number of glaring inconsistencies, such as: the boy's teacher singles him out as the sole source of disruption among her class of twenty-seven, yet Mama's female neighbors both have problem children who have gone the ritalin route.

Ms. Nixon, Josh Stamberg as her ADD'd husband, and especially Lisa Emery as one of her ascerbic neighbors, really work at it. Now if only Mama and Dad would call in Super Nanny and listen to some good old-fashioned advice on how to change bad behavior without drugs, herbs, video games, or gene-blaming, it would once again be a wonderful day in the neigh-bor-hood.

On Book . . .

Part of Wilder's genius was his versatility. Get more familiar with his works for the stage in "Thornton Wilder: Three Plays," with a foreword by John Guare, and TCG's two-volume collection of his short plays ["Collected Short Plays, Vol 1 and Vol. 2]. His novel "Heaven's My Destination" shows the Depression-era Wilder reflecting on the indominable spirit of America.

And if you find yourself cast in one of Wilder's plays [or someone else's], return to one of the great acting teachers of the last half century, Uta Hagen. Her "Challenge for the Actor" is an invaluable resource. Skip "Respect for Acting,' her earlier work, which, she once told me, failed to present her ideas as fully as she had hoped. An interesting new work called "Actions - The Actors' Thesaurus," by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams, relates the methods of playwright and director Terry Johnson, about how to give yourself a practical vocabulary to expand your understanding of what a character needs to do.