Plum’s skill closes the holes in ‘33 Variations’

Jim Andreassi (Beethoven), Paula Plum (Dr. Katherine Brandt) in 33 Variations.  Photo by Timothy Dunn.

Jim Andreassi (Beethoven), Paula Plum (Dr. Katherine Brandt) in 33 Variations. Photo by Timothy Dunn.

BOSTON — Genius is not easily explained or explored. Even if you make it your life’s work.
Just why did a musical genius such as Ludwig van Beethoven devote several precious years of his career to composing 33 variations of a pedestrian waltz composed by an equally pedestrian composer?In Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations,“ a Beethoven scholar named Dr. Katherine Brandt (Paula Plum) races against the clock to complete her investigation of the puzzle before her body succumbs to the ravages of ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Although “33 Variations” is based on a historical fact — Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations — Kaufman’s work is fictional, his take on events that took place in Vienna between 1819 and 1823.
Kaufman moves the action back and forth between Brandt in the present and Beethoven, at times allowing the two worlds to collide.
When the play opens, Dr. Brandt has recently been diagnosed with ALS and there is doubt whether she will be able to go to Bonn to view the sketches and Beethoven papers that may hold the key to the mystery of the Diabelli Variations.
Were the 33 variations a magnificent obsession or — gasp! — did the famously cash-strapped composer just do it for the money?
As usual when she approaches a role, Plum is all in. It’s not surprising to find that the acknowledgments in the program included the ALS residence in Chelsea; she would want to know just how the disease affects victims in its different stages, and apply it to her work. Attention to detail has been one of the hallmarks to her acting career.
The scenes in the second act in which Dr. Brandt must be fed and threatens are heartbreaking.
One subplot involves Dr. Brandt’s complicated relationship with her daughter Clara (Dakota Shepard) , who after attaining a certain level of competence in a certain profession, simply picks up and moves on to another one.
It’s something the obsessed Dr. Brandt doesn’t agree with and can’t abide.
“I’m afraid my daughter is mediocre,” she confides.
There are problems with the sub-plot involving the relationship between Clara and a caring male nurse named Mike Clark (Kelby T. Akin).
The chemistry between the two seemed a bit forced and while Akin conveys the caring involved, how is he allowed to drop everything and go off to Bonn for many months to care for Katherine?
James Andreassi’s showy performance as Beethoven is all over the map — at times emotional or depressed, a messy monster given to impetuousness and pettiness.
Victor Shopov gives style and substance to the role of the master’s endlessly put-upon caretaker and aide de camp, Anton Schindler.
If there is someone in the production who can match strides with Plum, it is Maureen Keiller as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, the German woman who oversees the Beethoven archives and becomes a trusted ally in Dr. Brandt’s quest.
The scenes between Plum’s steadily descending Brandt and Keiller’s stolid character ring the truest and are easily the best in the production. Somewhere along the way she becomes a trusted friend, even as a frustrated Brandt tries to push her away.
Will McGarrahan is Anton Diabelli, the music publisher and composer who implores Beethoven to explore his work; McGarrahan gives him as much substance as he can muster.
Catherine Stornetta, a fine musician and music director, performs the musical accompaniment skillfully and passionately.
The biggest problem with the piece is that Kaufman is telegraphing his punches all along the way, and we can see what’s coming down the line and where it’s all going. In the second act he chooses to gild the lily a bit on the connection between the main characters with a dream sequence between Beethoven and Dr. Brandt.
He also chooses to completely connect the dots again for us in the second act, when he has the dying Brandt and the going-deaf Beethoven saying at the same exact moment: “Time is scarce. I must have the chance to finish the work.”
The fact that there are some holes here doesn’t lessen your appreciation for the acting Plum and the cast are doing under the skilled hand of Spiro Veloudos. Even if Plum’s performance was all there was — and there is much more than that — it would be reason enough to go.
The Lyric Stage Company production of Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations.” Directed by Spiro Veloudos. At the Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, through Feb. 2.