Exclusive: A Conversation on 33 Variations
Kevin Sessums Talks to Jane Fonda and Moises Kaufman
I recently had a conversation with Moises Kaufman and Jane Fonda. Kaufman’s play, 33 Variations, opens on March 9th at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway with Fonda as its leading lady. She plays a musicologist who is trying to solve the mystery of Beethoven spending so much time writing 33 variations based on a short waltz by Anton Diabelli. She, like the composer, is battling against time. He was going deaf. She has a life-threatening disease. Among her costars are Samantha Mathis, who plays the daughter with whom she’s had difficulties and Colin Hanks — yes, Tom’s son — who plays her nurse.
Kaufman is the writer and director of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project. He directed, among other plays, I Am My Own Wife and Liev Schreiber’s Macbeth at the Public Theatre. He is the artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project.
We all know Fonda’s credits — or many of them. She’s been at this for fifty years. I ask after a mutual friend, Pat Newcomb, who was the publicist for everyone from Marilyn Monroe to Barbra Streisand to Warren Beatty. “You know I took Pat to the Czech Republic right after the Velvet Revolution and we met Vaclav Havel,” she says, smiling at the memory and petting her small Coton de Tulear dog named Tulea who is curled in her lap.
I recall the first time I ever met her. “It was years ago,” I tell her and mention one of my best friends from college who became one of her closest Hollywood pals for a while. We all had dinner at Joe Allen.
“It couldn’t have been that many years ago,” she said.
“Yeah. It was,” I tell her. “Maybe the early ‘80s. We each had vestiges of a shag and you showed up with your stepmother.”
She laughs.. “I’ve had several. Which one?” she asks.
“I think her name was Susan.”
“Oh, yes, yes. Susan! Yes. Now I remember.”
“I walked you back to your hotel and you told a rather risque joke about arriving at The Pearly Gates and the conversation that ensued with Saint Peter. I remember thinking to myself — shit — Jane Fonda is funny. Who knew she was funny?
JANE FONDA: I’ve gotten funnier. I had to keep up with Ted Turner. He’s hysterical. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to be married to Ted Turner.
KEVIN SESSUMS: That could be a compliment or an insult. He allowed you to get more in touch with your own sense of humor?
JF: Well, he allowed me to ... ah ... well... yeah. That’s all. Yeah.
KS: After your divorce from him, you kept living in Atlanta. Do you consider yourself a Southerner now?
JF: Yes, I do. I’ve lived there for over 18 years.
KS: Moises, we met at the “Mormon March” after Prop 8 passed in California and we New Yorkers took to the streets in solidarity. We were both rendezvousing with some guys at the Barnes and Noble next to the Mormon Visitors Center. I was with my old boyfriend Peter Staley.
MOISES KAUFMAN: Yes, of course. We were meeting Tony Kushner and his husband, Mark Harris. Doug Wright and his husband, David Clement. To be demonstrating with Tony in front of the Mormon Visitors Center — because that’s where half of Angels in America takes place — was very moving.
KS: It had the dramatic contours of a Moises Kaufman play.
MK: Yes, I guess it did, didn’t it. I was very moved that night.
JF: Someone emailed Moises a picture of me with Harvey Milk during a “No on Prop 6” march.
KS: Well, honey, you do have a history of marches. I’d expect you to have a picture with Harvey Milk.
JF: It’s why I loved Sean’s performance so much. I knew Harvey and he totally got him.
Continued, AFTER THE JUMP...
KS: And yet there’s a part of me that resents the fact that they keep giving these acting awards for impersonations — Ray Charles, June Carter Cash, Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth...
JF: But Sean wasn’t giving an impersonation. That went far deeper than that. He was channeling Harvey.
KS: Is there a gay angle to this play, Moises? There always seems to be — if not a gay angle — then a gay avenue into your work.
JF: There are a lot of guys in wigs.
MK: The only gay angle this time is that I’m gay. But the play doesn’t deal with any gay issues.
KS: How would you describe what it’s about? Obsession? Transcendence?
MK: Both of those things, yes.
JF: And passion. An intellectual passion.
KS: How did you become involved in this, Jane? The play has already had two productions — one in D.C. with Mary Beth Peil in your role and the other in San Diego with Jayne Atkinson taking it on.
JF: Moises sent me the script. I just found out it was because Eve Ensler suggested me. I sort of thought maybe he had me in mind all along. I thought the script was fantastic — but so unusual I wasn’t sure if I understood it. Stylistically, it’s very unusual.
KS: But all your works, Moises, are stylistically unusual. Form seems to take precedent over words. The concept of a piece seems to be of the utmost importance to you and the words seem to fall into place later. It is a very different way for a playwright to work. You grew up in Venezuela. Do you work this way out of necessity because English — though you are fluent and, indeed, eloquent — is not your mother tongue?
MK: No. That’s not it. I think for me one of the questions I am trying to pose in my work is why is it that realism and naturalism — which are really 19th Century forms — are still the prevailing forms of the theatre. To me that is a really important question. If you went to a contemporary museum of art you wouldn’t expect to see a painting that looks like a Van Gogh. Right? If you saw a painting that looked like a Van Gogh in a contemporary museum of art you would say, “That’s a bad imitation of a Van Gogh.” Since Impressionism we’ve had Post-Impressionism, Dadaism — all the “isms” of the 20th Century — which basically pose the question, what is the relationship between the viewer and the canvas? Right? So why is it while all the other art forms have done that, the theatre in America — especially in New York — 90% of the work that we see is naturalism or realism which really is a form that is over 100 years old?
KS: Do you consider yourself a writer?
MK: Yes, of course. A writer and a director. To me the thing that I keep struggling with is how do we make sure that the stage continues to be a platform where we can talk about ideas. There is a line that Beethoven has in the play in which he says that it is impossible to talk about new ideas using old forms. That’s exactly how I feel.
JF: Moises says he’s a director and a writer. I see him as a visionary and a conductor. And a weaver.
KS: It’s been over 40 years since you were in a play, Jane. Does it scare you to have come into a theatrical environment once more?
JF: Oh, yeah.
KS: Is it too patriarchal for you? I know you have your issues with patriarchy.
JF: (Laughing) With him? With Moises directing? No. No! You know something, I never really thought about this before but maybe a part of why I said, “Yes, I have to do this,” is that it’s not patriarchal — neither the play nor the process.
KS: What did draw you to do this play at this time in your life? Was it the need once more to use that theatrical muscle before it completely atrophied? Was it the parental issues that the play deals with? You’ve written about your own emotional issues with your father. The daughter dynamic in your life is a very strong one. The play addresses the issues that come up between a daughter and a parent.
JF: I’m not an intellectual but all the plays I had been sent in the past were all old wine in a new cask. It’s like: Booooor-ing. And suddenly I got this play that was so clearly outside-the-box. I didn’t know how to categorize it which was why it was so important to me to talk to people who had seen it. There was just something that caught me about it and, believe me, it was not an easy play to read. I had no context for it because it’s so visual. And, man, was I surprised when we started rehearsing and I saw these outrageous things happening. An example. The first time we were actually up on our feet after our table readings and I’m talking — contemporary — to the librarian who looks after the Beethoven archives and I’m trying to understand why it is during those years why we can’t find anything he wrote about these variations. She says, “Well, there is this one thing we have,” and she walks over to these characters out of the 18th Century who are on another part of the stage and she takes a book out of one of their hands. I mean, we break down every wall with this play. Half the time I’m talking to the audience so we break down the fourth wall. What do you call the wall we break down when she goes and gets that book?
MK: It’s the membrane between the past and the present. That membrane becomes quite permeable in the play.
JF: I was writing a lot about Beethoven when I got the play and I was also writing about this concept of a temporal membrane — as you get toward the end of life that the membrane becomes thinner.
MK: My God. I’ve never heard you say that. That’s how I always talk about this play — how the membrane of the past and present becomes permeable.
JF: I was writing about it in the context of the membrane between life and death. But, yes, we are piercing that membrane all the way through the play and it’s just wild.
MK: You know what my boyfriend said? He came and saw the run-through yesterday and he told me, “Moises, you were always writing that play for Jane. You just needed Jane to get here so she could do it.”
JF: At first — God! — I was so scared. I kept wondering if I could really do it at this stage of my life. Can I do eight performances a week? It’s been 45 years since I’ve been on a stage. But I was obsessed with the idea of it all and was talking about it all at a party in Phoenix. A woman overheard me and came over to tell me she had seen the play. She went on and on and on about it and how I must do it.
KS: I call that Heightened Coincidence — which might be a kind of agnostic term for God. That’s God, I guess. God’s got a sense of humor, too. Not just you.
JF: Yes! Yes, She does. Absolutely. She does.
KS: You think God is a She too? I like to imagine She’s rather large and African American — a slightly less regal Jessye Norman — and not some old white man with a beard.
JF: (laughing) Yes. Me too. Exactly. That’s right.
KS: Moises, you said your boyfriend told you you wrote this for Jane and just needed her to find you. But you’ve never had a play of yours produced with a big star in it. You usually workshop your productions with Tectonic and its company. Does having Jane in this production throw your artistic equilibrium off? Has she been a good girl? Excuse me, Jane: I mean a good woman.
MK: Jane is an incredible collaborator herself. She was even off-book the first day of rehearsal. I knew the first time I met her that by the end of the dinner I really wanted to work with her.
JF: He just liked that I count my martinis. He said something at one point and I commented, “Yeah, well, two martinis ago...”
MK: And I said to myself that a woman who measures time in the number of martinis is a woman I want to work with.
KS: And yet, Jane, you never in your amazing career ever became a gay icon like many actresses.
JF: No. I didn’t. I haven’t. And I know why. It’s because I have never been conscious of my presence. All the gay icons have very, very strong physical and emotional presences. Katharine Hepburn didn’t like this about me. When we were filming On Golden Pond she used to take my cheek in her hand and say, “This is your box. What do you want to say with it?” I never really gave a fuzzy rat’s ass about that aspect of it all. I never had that kind of persona. I was never confident enough. I just didn’t look the right way.
KS: But you always came off — in all your evolved selves — as a confident person. Many gay icons have a heightened vulnerability about them. You’ve never seemed vulnerable as part of your public persona. Well, maybe you had a Klute-like vulnerablity to you at times.
JF: (laughs) I know what you’re saying. But it’s just not my style to be a gay icon. I wish it were. I think it would be a hoot because most of my friends are gay.
KS: Did becoming a Christian help you find a vulnerablity within yourself that you never had before?
JF: No, I found the vulnerabilty first and that led me to Christianity. But I think of myself now as a Christian Buddhist.
KS: In that order?
JF: I don’t know. I study with a Zen teacher and this play to me is very Zen. I don’t want to give too much away but the fundamental message of the play is .... well ... ah ...
MK: .... is related to Zen. You’re right. Let’s leave it at that.
KS: When you look back on all your evolved selves, Jane — from the sex kitten in Barbarella to Cat Ballou to Klute to They Shoot Horses Don’t They...
MK: ... that’s a masterpiece, that movie...
KS: .. to Coming Home to Julia to Nine to Five to On Golden Pond to your political activism to your Housewife-of-Atlanta existence with Ted Turner to the daughter of Henry Fonda to mother to grandmother — do you look back on all those selves as different people or do they all combine into this 71-year-old woman in front of me?
JF: It’s like 33 variations - they are all so different in style and tone but they all have the same origin: Diabelli’s waltz.
KS: Henry’s daughter.
JF: Yeah. Yeah.
KS: Is that something you’ve always been aware of having to live up to? A curse? A blessing?
JF: No. That’s something that gay icons do. I’ve just stumbled along.
33 Variations is at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 West 49th Street, New York, through May 24. Ticket information here.
(top photo: Joan Marcus, photo of Jane Fonda and Moises Kaufman: Bruce Glikas)