Actors Co-op’s intimate revival of Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations is not only one of the year’s finest 99-seat productions, it is among the all-time best I’ve seen at the Co-op since first discovering the Hollywood theatrical gem over two decades ago.
Kaufman recounts two parallel stories separated by nearly two-hundred years.
Present-day musicologist Dr. Katherine Brandt (Nan McNamara) has traveled to Bonn, Germany to investigate one of classical music’s unsolved mysteries—why Ludwig Van Beethoven (Bruce Ladd) devoted three years of his life to writing 33 Variations of a waltz so mediocre, it would otherwise have vanished from history without a trace.
Complicating matters for both musicologist and composer is the matter of deadlines, and not simply those imposed by a need to publish.
Having been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Katherine feels compelled to complete her work alongside archive librarian Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger (Treva Tegtmeir) before the illness stops sending brain impulses to her muscles and leaves her incapable of movement or speech.
Beethoven, meanwhile, has come to realize that his twenty-five year battle against impending deafness is about to be lost, plunging the music master into every composer’s worst nightmare, total silence.
Fortunately for Ludwig Van B, secretary Anton Schnidler (understudy Christian Edsall) remains faithfully at his imperious employer’s every beck and call.
Less fortunately for Dr. B, adult daughter Clara (Greyson Chadwick) continues to prove a disappointment, whether it’s her hair or her series of career switches or her penchant for dating unworthy men, all of which leaves Katherine with one additional deadline, to “figure things out” with Clara and find “some kind of closure before the end.”
Even on paper, 33 Variations is that rarity, a play as intellectually stimulating as it is dramatically compelling.
On stage, and particularly as directed for Actors Co-op by an inspired Thomas James O’Leary, performed by an absolutely superb cast, and designed by a team of creative artists of astonishing ingenuity, the 2009 Best Play Tony nominee makes for an evening of theater as moving as it is mesmerizing.
It is also quite possibly the edgiest entry so far for the Christian-based theater company, centering as it does on a lead character who is neither religious nor destined for a Road To Damascus conversion. Not only that, Kaufman’s script features nonjudgmental talk about hiring a male “masseur” for Mom, premarital sex for Clara and Mike, and assisted suicide as a viable option.
More significantly, it is a chance for Co-op favorites and newcomers to strut their dramatic stuff, beginning with McNamara’s magnificent Katherine, whose descent into disability proves as devastating to watch as her discovery of uncharted waters of motherhood and friendship proves touching.
Ladd is equally riveting, and never more so than in a tour-de-force solo scene that has a deaf, seemingly possessed Beethoven composing Variation 32 Fugue entirely inside his head.
A revelatory Chadwick, hurt, resentful, but still hopeful, does her finest Co-op work so far opposite Parrish’s adorably awkward-with-words Mike.
Tegtmeier’s starchy but caring Gertie is wonderful too, as are the unexpected relationships she and Parrish forge, the former with McNamara’s Katherine, the latter with Chadwick’s Clara.
Pitch-perfect in his first time out as Schindler, Edsall defines what an understudy is supposed to do, with Rockwell completing the cast quite splendidly as the ever-frustrated Diabelli.
Adding to the theatrical magic is concert-hall-caliber pianist/musical director Dylan Price at the baby grand.
Scenic/projection designer Nicholas Acciani’s deceptively simple pillared set reveals almost as many wonders as there are musical variations (you’ll never guess what’s behind that white brick wall), aided by Andrew Schmedake’s gorgeously nuanced lighting, costume designer Vicki Conrad’s impeccable mix of contemporary and period styles, and sound designer David B. Marling’s striking blend of classical music and pitch-perfect effects.
There’s even some lovely, unexpected choreography by Michelle Parrish.
33 Variations is produced by Thomas Chavira. E.K. Dagenfield is dialect coach. Shawna Voragen is stage manager. Josie Austin is assistant stage manager.
Among the countless memorable Actors Co-op productions I’ve had the great good fortune to see, 33 Variations may well top them all. It should, without question, top every Los Angeles theater lover’s must-see list this month.
Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. Through March 26. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:30. Also Saturday March 18 at 2:30. Reservations: 323 462-8460 x 300
March 3, 2017
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly