How does brilliance respond to mediocrity? It’s one of the dynamics at work in Moisés Kaufman’s “33 Variations’’ — and it’s a question that Paula Plum implicitly answers with a performance at Lyric Stage Company that manages to transcend the limitations of an ambitious but deeply flawed and erratic play.
Plum’s artistry is not exactly news to Boston theatergoers. But we shouldn’t take for granted her extraordinary range, or the depth, wit, and fierce intelligence she brings to role after role. In “33 Variations,’’ directed by Spiro Veloudos, she delivers a subtly modulated, consistently engrossing portrayal of a not-terribly-likable protagonist, earning sympathy for a character who would never ask for it. Plum has made a career out of that kind of skillful balancing act.
She plays Katherine Brandt, an irascible musicologist struggling against the relentless encroachment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the degenerative illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, while trying to complete her monograph on Beethoven and puzzle out why the composer put so much effort into writing all those piano variations on Anton Diabelli’s thoroughly commonplace waltz.
Just as drearily ordinary, in Katherine’s judgmental eyes, is her own daughter, Clara (Dakota Shepard), who seems adrift in her theater career. “I fear she’ll never truly be anything,’’ Katherine tells a music librarian in Bonn, well played by Maureen Keiller. “I’m afraid my daughter is mediocre.’’
Unfortunately, that kind of overt semaphoring of themes — with a line like that, can the path lead anywhere but to revelation and reconciliation? — recurs throughout “33 Variations.’’ The playwright is also far too eager to connect the dots for us by establishing a parallel, time-shifting narrative that features Beethoven (James Andreassi), who is battling illness, deafness, and his own fear that he is past his prime while trying to compose not just the “Diabelli Variations” but the “Missa Solemnis,” and Schindler (Victor L. Shopov), the sycophantic secretary and eventual Beethoven biographer who idolizes the man he calls “Master’’ and absorbs the composer’s temperamental outbursts.
Kaufman is the cofounder and artistic director of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project. With members of that company, he created “The Laramie Project,’’ the story of the horrific murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, drawn from scores of interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyo., and “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later.’’ Both played at ArtsEmerson in 2010, vividly illustrating the power of documentary theater. In “33 Variations,’’ a fictional creation inspired by real events, Kaufman fares less well, though there are some undeniably moving moments. Veloudos beautifully stages a scene where Katherine, Clara, Schindler, and Diabelli sing a bit of “Kyrie eleison’’ when things are at their worst for both Katherine and Beethoven. But overall the play never finds a way to smoothly integrate its tonal shifts from somber medical (and musical) drama to romance and back again, or from present-day sturm und drang to the 19th-century variety.
Andreassi, so electric opposite Plum in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Antony and Cleopatra,’’ looks his part in “33 Variations,’’ with shaggy mane and brooding eyes. But the cliché of Beethoven as tormented genius and human thundercloud is so thoroughly marbled into our cultural consciousness — and into this play — that there may be no way to escape it. In any case, Andreassi doesn’t.
Apart from Plum, the best reason to see “33 Variations’’ is Kelby T. Akin. He shone as the action movie star in the Lyric’s production of Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy’’ two years ago, and he excels again as Katherine’s bumbling but good-natured nurse, Mike, who becomes involved with Clara. One moment between the pair that’s meant to be lighthearted unfolds in jarring fashion, though: When Mike jokingly punches Clara in the arm, Shepard goes reeling across the stage.
The ever-capable Will McGarrahan does what he can with the thankless role of Diabelli, a music publisher and composer, who functions largely as Beethoven’s cat’s-paw. Diabelli wears a pink jacket and yellow cravat, one of several flavorful touches by costume designer Charles Schoonmaker. We hear periodic snatches of the “Diabelli Variations,” performed by pianist Catherine Stornetta, who is seated upstage on Cristina Todesco’s airy, honey-hued set, with its blond panels and floor. Projection designer Shawn Boyle puts sketches of the variations across one wall, giving a sense of a great mind in ferment and a work in progress.
But the most compelling sight onstage is Plum’s face, flickering with Katherine’s awareness that time is running out, her powers are waning, and she still has work to do. The human condition, in
other words, from which there’s no