LA JOLLA -- There’s a reason why there are so few memorable works about the births of artistic masterpieces: The creative process is boring. Writers, painters and musicians dawdle interminably over details and decisions that common mortals simply don’t have the patience, not to say masochism, for.
Playwright and director Moises Kaufman (“The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde”), however, is always up for a challenge. In his latest offering, “33 Variations” -- the divinely staged if occasionally earthbound drama that opened Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse -- he imaginatively speculates on Ludwig Van Beethoven’s long and arduous composition of the curiously inspired “Diabelli Variations.”
It’s an intriguing dramatic premise when you consider that this revered musical oddity stemmed from an invitation put out by the wealthy music publisher Anton Diabelli to 50 Viennese composers (including Czerny, Liszt and Schubert) to write a variation on his waltz. In the play’s version of events, Beethoven (played with a cartoon sketchiness by Zach Grenier) is initially not interested in the offer by Diabelli (Don Amendolia), famously dismissing the piece as a “cobbler’s patch” before mysteriously taking up the task with his customary compulsive brio.
Kaufman is fascinated with the way something ordinary was transfigured into something extraordinary, an accomplishment that has been ranked with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” But he’s just as eager to understand our obsession with the origins of phenomenal achievement, which is why much of the play is set in the present.
Katherine Brandt (Jayne Atkinson, in a most welcome appearance) is an American musicologist determined to write her last monograph on what is considered to be one of Beethoven’s greatest piano scores. Brandt isn’t nearing retirement age, but she’s been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and fears that she doesn’t have a lot of mobility ahead of her.
Clara (a nicely unsentimental Laura Odeh), Katherine’s prickly daughter, doesn’t like the idea of her mother going off to Bonn alone to do research, but she also knows there’s no stopping this single-minded scholar. Their relationship is fraught, in large part because Katherine is an overachiever while Clara, a chronic career-changer currently dabbling as a costume designer, is content to sulk and drift.
Settling into Beethoven’s birthplace to do research, Katherine finds herself relying on Dr. Gertie Ladenburger (an excellent Susan Kellermann), a Teutonically no-nonsense keeper of Beethoven’s papers. Katherine first hypothesizes that the “Variations” are an exercise in elaborate parody, but the more she inhabits Beethoven’s world, the more she senses there’s a real admiration for the robust beer-hall ambience of Diabelli’s humble waltz. This movement from rarefied intellectual snobbery to acceptance of everyday sweaty existence isn’t easy for Katherine, who rebuffs any attempt at familiarity. But as her physical deterioration accelerates, she’s forced to accept the tenderness and vulnerability she’s always fought to keep at bay.
Against her wishes, her daughter has arrived in Bonn with her new boyfriend, Mike (Ryan King), a nurse who fell in love with her while examining her mother. Still fragilely working past their low-self-esteem issues, the couple can best be described as endearingly unimpressive -- and as such, a lesson for Katherine, who has placed too much emphasis on professional success.
Kaufman does a sure-footed job of setting up Katherine’s emotional journey. But he’s less adept at making the connection between this driven woman and the monomaniac composer who, trailed by his obsequious secretary and later biographer, Anton Schindler (Erik Steele), seems more like a cliched kook than an unruly genius who was constitutionally incapable of playing by the rules of his decorous society.
As the play moves between the 21st and the 19th centuries, it sometimes seems like a Tom Stoppard comedy without the wit or a Michael Frayn drama without the intricacy. But what “33 Variations” may lack in dramaturgical acuity, it more than makes up for in heart. This is a slightly sentimental story with a high-cultural hook -- a beautifully wrought Lifetime special for philharmonic regulars.
Both Katherine and Ludwig are seen to be striving for an antidote to impermanence -- a desperate lunge for the longevity of art in the face of life’s cruel shortness. Yet the composer madly intuited something that the increasingly helpless woman has to painfully discover -- namely, our inescapably transitory situation needs to embraced if it’s to be transcended.
The production, which moves gracefully under Kaufman’s assured direction, features an artfully designed set by Derek McLane, atmospheric lighting by David Lander and mood-establishing projections of Beethoven’s original sheet music by Jeff Sugg. Most crucially, the “Diabelli Variations” are majestically performed live by pianist Diane Walsh, in an order that has its own lyrical logic. The overall effect is traveling not just to a different time and place but also through the music of the spheres.
The show is fortunate to have a full-blooded actress such as Atkinson anchoring this flight. Katherine is not easily liked, but Atkinson has an ability to maintain our sympathy even as her character acts callously. Of course we’re sorry for her illness, but more than that we want to see her soul expand as everything else in her world tragically constricts.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 4
Price: $29 to $62
Contact: (858) 550-1010
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes