In a rehearsal room of the Ahmanson Theatre, Moises Kaufman recounts a story about Ludwig van Beethoven, a central figure in his new play, “33 Variations” — or, rather, a story about the composer’s hair.
When Beethoven died in 1827, the custom was to trim the locks of famous decedents to sell as relics; eventually some of that hair came into the possession of a Jewish family, who traded it for their freedom from the Nazis.
“33 Variations,” for Kaufman, is a subtler tale of survival, exploring how one’s obsessions can help overcome overwhelming obstacles in life. The piece tells of a contemporary musicologist (played by Jane Fonda), who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and is preoccupied with unraveling a historical mystery: Why did Beethoven, at the end of his life, feel compelled to write 33 variations based on a trivial bit of a waltz by the minor composer Anton Diabelli?
The subject may seem a departure for Kaufman, best known for work spotlighting homophobia, such as “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project,” the latter revolving around the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard. But Kaufman doesn’t see it that way. “It’s true that those stories deal with [gay] subject matter, but that is more an accident than a core interest of mine,” he said over lunch. “My father survived the Holocaust, so I have always been interested in how society deals with the ‘other,’ and how one survives in the world when you don’t belong in it.”
Beethoven is the outsider in “33 Variations, “a pariah at this point in his life, because he is deaf and his music has fallen out of favor with the Viennese,” Kaufman said. “People cross the street to avoid him. His obsession with the Diabelli Variations is the only thing in his life that makes any sense. He hasn’t any family or health or money, but he knows that in the music he can live.”
The 47-year-old Kaufman has long worn his own multiple outsider identities on his sleeve. He is the son of a Romanian Holocaust survivor who, at 11, in order to earn money for food, made the yellow Stars of David the Jews were forced to wear. Kaufman tells several stories about that time period in the course of an interview: how his uncle, a violinist, stole a Stradivarius as his town was burning but couldn’t play it while hiding in a cellar; how he himself continues to imagine how he might fare had he been alive at the time; and the realization that, at 47, he probably would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers.
Then there was growing up as a payot-wearing Orthodox Jew in the very Catholic city of Caracas, Venezuela; attending a yeshiva while terrified his classmates might discern that he was gay; and still feeling himself an outsider as a Latino in New York, where he settled in 1987 and founded his Tectonic Theater Project four years later.
“I’m incredibly shy, I am socially awkward, and I don’t have many other interests other than my work,” he said. “When I’m in the rehearsal room, I’m my best self. I’ve always known how to live in my work. I am not so good at living my life.”
Four years ago, while Kaufman was perusing a record store near his Manhattan apartment, a salesman introduced him to a CD of the Diabelli Variations and told him the story of Beethoven’s obsession. “The question I had was, ‘Why?’ ” Kaufman said. “Why, when he was working on his eighth and then his ninth symphonies, would the genius choose to focus on the mediocre? It’s not like he had all the time in the world. Beethoven was the one who said life is short; art is long. So, by the time I got home from the record store, I knew I had to write this play.”
Kaufman, who condensed some 400 hours of interviews to create “The Laramie Project,” was no less rigorous in his research for “33 Variations.” He read every biography he could find on the composer and even pored over Beethoven’s drafts of the music in archives in Bonn. “For me, it was almost a religious experience,” he said. “I’m a very talmudic writer, and it did remind me of being back in yeshiva, in the way you pour your heart into books and interpretations.
“What I loved was how intimate I felt with Beethoven’s compositional process; at times, I felt I shouldn’t be there because I was looking at something so personal. Beethoven writes first in pencil, and then he goes back and with ink goes over the lines that he likes. When he has a clear idea, the pen barely touches the paper, but when he gets stuck, you can see the torture; there are scratches and it becomes like a Jackson Pollock painting. And there are food stains, indicative of what he was eating; and a lot of water stains, because every so often he would pour cold water on his head — it was a mania of his — he said it was to reset his thinking. And what was even more moving to me was that sometimes he would write something like lento maestoso, right next to a marketing list: cheese, milk, eggs. So the banal coexists with the sublime in such a profound way.”
Not that working in Germany was always easy for Kaufman, who experienced “freak-outs” when uniformed officials examined his passport. But then there was his own obsession with completing his play.
“We live in a culture where obsession is seen as a bad thing, something to cure,” Kaufman added. “So the idea of obsession giving meaning to your life is something I wanted to explore.”
For ticket information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.