‘33 Variations’ hits right notes

Courtesy PhotoMagic of music: Rosina Reynolds plays a musicologist and Howard Swain plays Beethoven in TheatreWorks’ “33 Variations.”

“I have to understand why a genius becomes obsessed with mediocrity!” exclaims New York music scholar Katherine Brandt, herself rather obsessive.

She is the central figure in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations,” now in a West Coast premiere at TheatreWorks. The title refers to Beethoven’s variations on a simple melody composed by his contemporary, the music publisher Diabelli.

Some of that lovely music accompanies the play thanks to musical director William Liberatore on an upstage piano.

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Despite the fact that she’s just been diagnosed with ALS, Katherine (in a carefully crafted, subtle performance by Rosina Reynolds) is off to Bonn, Germany, to research further — specifically, to examine the great composer’s early sketches for the variations.

Left behind is her daughter, Clara (an engaging Jennifer Le Blanc), who not only wants to take care of Mom but, knowing time is short, hopes for closure in a relationship in which her mother has always been critical, judgmental and standoffish.

To Mom’s disapproval, Clara has been trying on different careers; Katherine also scorns Clara’s new boyfriend, Nurse Mike (an endearingly bumbling Chad Deverman), dismissing him as a mediocre specimen.

In the Beethoven archives in Bonn, Katherine is cautiously befriended by her German counterpart, Gertie, a deliciously matter-of-fact, deadpan turn by Marie Schell.

Simultaneously, in 19th-century Vienna, Beethoven (Howard Swain, expansively eccentric and wild-eyed), who’s rapidly losing his hearing as well as his general health, struggles with the compositions. He’s attended by his beleaguered assistant (a convincingly fussy and faithful Jackson Davis), whom he frequently and ineffectually fires in hissy fits.

Meanwhile an increasingly impatient Diabelli (Michael Gene Sullivan, an amusingly jocular, dandyish figure) waits, over the course of several years, for the genius to finish what was expected to be only a few commissioned variations, not 33.

The two interlocking stories, contemporary and historical, occasionally intersect with a lovely, sometimes wordless simplicity.

Andrea Bechert’s elegant set, and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes spanning the centuries, enhance the fluidity of the dual time periods.

If the enigma of Beethoven’s compulsion to work endlessly on Diabelli’s waltz — transforming it into a circus tune, fugue, march and more — provides the scaffolding for Kaufman’s drama, and Beethoven’s all-consuming rapture with his ongoing project is visceral, still, it’s the dynamics between physically deteriorating mother and ambivalent, needy daughter that prove most emotionally resonant.

Director Robert Kelley draws forth both the humor and the drama with a light, glancing touch.

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