Seen on Broadway: 33 Variations is a good excuse to showcase a star (Jane Fonda, in her first Broadway role in 46 years) and a stunning design that integrates Moises Kaufman’s unwieldy play. Kaufman, author of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project, graduates to the Main Stem with a show that cherry-picks concepts from past productions, notably Wit (coming to grips with mortal illness), Amadeus (incomprehension of genius), and On Golden Pond, with Fonda playing both her father’s grumpy part, and Katharine Hepburn’s forbearing one, from the film version. Fonda is Katherine Brandt, a musicologist whose obsession with finding out why Beethoven spent a chunk of his last years writing variations on an insignificant waltz mirrors the composer’s stormy stop-and-go quest to create and finish them. Brandt, who travels to Bonn to research Beethoven’s archives, is steadily deteriorating from Lou Gehrig’s disease, which echoes the composer’s own struggle against deafness. It’s a shock to see the former workout queen, age 71, with slowing faculties and clutching a walker, but she doesn’t overplay the part. Despite vocal strain that in some ways refines the characterization, she gives a fine performance, as if she had never left the stage for the screen and all the rest.

Holding up their end of the production, in historical scenes that recreate the always-poignant story of the great man’s decline, is the blustery Beethoven (Zach Grenier, who does play to the balcony), his flustered patron, Diabelli (Don Amendolia), and put-upon assistant, Schindler (Erik Steele). In the present day, Samantha Mathis, as Brandt’s estranged daughter, Colin Hanks, as the ailing woman’s nurse, and Susan Kellermann, as her stern German counterpart, do as much as they can to animate familiar scenes of regret and reconciliation, with the two younger actors sparking scenes where their characters warily fall in love. No one is dexterous enough, however, to disguise that these themes are ones we’ve seen before, in more compelling variations.

If Kaufman’s journalistic sensibility as a playwright is at odds with more sentimental, straining-for-seriousness material, as a director he has marshaled a design team that speaks louder than words. What could come off as window dressing, as the show shuttles from present to past, and merges in Brandt’s mind, is very much the heart of the matter. Janice Pytel’s period and contemporary costumes are simple and sensible, as the show otherwise makes imaginative connections. Derek McLane’s archives set, with limitless rows of documents and sheaves of composition paper, some rolled on and off stage, distills the essence of a scientific mind engaged in making sense of mountains of material. Jeff Sugg, from last season’s adventurously executed The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, returns with projections that amplify the thrill of discovery, bringing the dusty pages to life before our eyes while simultaneously winding down the clock on Brandt’s life (an MRI-type usage, with real-time video, is chilling). David Lander’s lighting design adds evocative touches all its own. Andre J. Pluess’ sound design has an unnerving surround quality, particularly in the scenes charting Beethoven’s debility, and effectively places characters in their environments across time and space. The best bridge of all, however, is concert pianist Diane Walsh, who from house left plays the Diabelli Variations, making the play’s conceits tangible to the senses. 33 Variations runs through May 24.

Seen Off Broadway: Ruined falls short of the greatness of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, but it is good enough. Inspired by a trip she took to Uganda, the play takes place in the war-ravaged Congo, where the Mother Courage-ish Mama Nadi (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) welcomes government and rebel soldiers alike for drinks and whoring. Mama’s apolitical stance is challenged by two new arrivals to her stable, whom she reluctantly houses in exchange for a box of imported chocolates: The plain and secretive Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a sure money-loser, and the beautiful, doe-like Sophie (Condola Rashad), who is of no value whatsoever, given her sexual mutilation. But Mama, despite her hard-nosed business instincts, is drawn to their stories, then into the fray, as the façade of neutrality crumbles.

There are numerous powerful sequences in Ruined, particularly when the women (who include another prostitute, Josefine, played by Cherise Booth), who are used to life in the shadows, assert themselves as something other than chattel in a conflict where rape and humiliation are the primary weapons. Thankfully, the show is short on hand-wringing and speeches. Nottage and director Kate Whoriskey know that didacticism would dilute the horror that they are trying to impart, and so the show is leavened with some fine original music (by Dominic Kanza) and musical performances brightly conveyed by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, who share the credit for sound design and music direction. But Ekulona’s overpowering performance is played at the same, ultimately wearying pitch throughout, and the final scene feels somewhat out of place, given what immediately precedes it. Then again, the empathetic Nottage may not be ready to give up on Africa; perhaps it is the task of our finest playwrights to find optimism where none seems to exist.

First seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and now at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I, Ruined has an effectively scene-setting design by McLane, a threadbare oasis of a bar ringed by native trees. Paul Tazewell’s costumes, particularly those for Mama, add splashes of local color to the scene. And Peter Kaczorowski’s observant lighting has gut-punching impact exactly when it needs to. Ruined plays through April 19.

None too gentle is Zombie, an adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’s Jeffrey Dahmer-esque short story, which appeared in The New Yorker. In this one-man (and one-mannequin) show, adapter Bill Connington plays Quentin P., whose humdrum persona conceals the heart of a psychopath. Quentin P. kidnaps disadvantaged young men and, like Oates’ inspiration, performs ice-pick lobotomies on them, in the hopes of transforming them into sexually subservient zombies. Under tight rein by director Thomas Caruso, Connington plays the part with little affect, drawing us in as surely as co-conspirators.

Thickening the creepy atmosphere is Josh Zangen’s design, basically a table (with chess set), and that mute, insinuating mannequin, which takes a fair amount of abuse that is difficult not to visualize for real. LD Joel E. Silver has conjured some effective shadowplay, and sound and graphics designer Deirdre Broderick envelopes the space with rumbles of ominous thunder. Not for all tastes, but compelling if you can stand the grisly details, Zombie is at the Studio Theatre in Theatre Row through March 29.

It’s a shame that Evan Smith’s The Savannah Disputation has closed at Playwright’s Horizons as it was a charming little play deftly directed by Walter Bobbie: four characters, one set, lively dialogue, and a perfect cast: Dana Ivey—turning in an award-winning performance as Mary—with Marylouise Burke as her sister (one divorced, one spinster), their parish priest, Father Murphy, played by Reed Birney, and Kellie Overbey as an unsure young Evangenical missionary. A team of top-notch designers created the production: sets by John Lee Beatty, lighting by Kenneth Posner, costumes by David Woolard, and sound by Tony Meola. The real stand out was Beatty’s set, which at first glance is a nice, southern-style living room with wooden slatted blinds on the free-standing windows (a nice design touch to allow the back wall to be cut away and reveal the sidewalk in front of the house) to keep out the sun, and Posner’s lighting adding a dappled sunny pattern on the rug and walls. Yet as you look around the living room, you become aware that this is not just any living room, but one people with the numerous religious icons decorating the room, from The Sacred Heart of Jesus and various statues of saints, as well as rosary beads hanging on the doorframe leading to the kitchen. The irony is that with all these visible signs of a Catholic home, when it comes right down to it, these sisters aren’t quite sure what they believe or what Catholics believe about some issues, when it comes time for some serious religious debate. So when the perky, young missionary appears on their doorstep and works her way into their belief system, the statues are put into the trashcan at one point as Dana Ivey’s character, Mary, states she is no longer a Catholic. Father Murphy, a weekly Thursday night dinner guest, is pulled into the fray and eventually smoothes things over. Mary and her sister will go on being Catholic, the missionary will most likely go back to the cosmetics counter, and Father Murphy will tend his flock. Yet each has been faced with questions about their religious beliefs that are not so easy to answer.

Equipment Vendors:

33 Variations
Scenery, Automation, Lighting, and Audio: PRG
Video: Scharff Weisberg

Scenery: Goodman Theatre
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: One Dream Sound

The Savannah Disputation
Scenery: PHScenic and Tom Carroll Scenery
Lighting: Hayden Production Services