'33 Variations,' 'Becky Shaw' open tonight in LA with Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason

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Craig Schwartz

Jane Fonda in "33 Variations." The Tony-nominated production, written and directed by Moises Kaufman, runs from February 9 through March 6, 2011.

Their average age is 70 – and Jane Fonda and Marsha Mason each open on separate stages tonight in Los Angeles. Two-time Oscar winner Fonda stars in “33 Variations” at the Music Center, while Mason, who never won despite four Academy Award nods, appears this week at the Skirball Center for L.A. Theatre Works in “Becky Shaw.”

Both are fairly new works.

Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations” premiered on Broadway in 2009 and received five Tony nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Fonda. She plays a musicologist intent on discovering Ludwig van Beethoven’s obsession in his final years with another composer's very mediocre waltz.

Her character suffers from a life-threatening disease, so time is of the essence for her, as it was for Beethoven. Now that she's 73, Fonda appreciated the story all the more. “The 33 Variations is a lesson to us: slow down. Really pay attention to detail. Nothing is ugly if you look at it closely and pierce it, don’t you think?”

Fonda said there was a moment in her life when she realized she had to slow things down. "I think during the five years I wrote my memoirs I realized that.” Fonda says it changed her life. "Slowing down can change your life. That may sound paradoxical coming from me, but it’s in fact how I live.”

Although I met Fonda inside the Ahmanson Theatre, I spoke with Marsha Mason by telephone. She’s keenly aware that fewer and fewer movie and television roles are available to her.

“It’s great for young people," said Mason. "I just wish there were as many opportunities for older women. ... If you look at the advertisements in the New York Times in any given weekend, you can count on one hand if there’s a mature person in a movie. I’m speaking specifically to women because you do find men, but you rarely find women.”

Emily Bergl played Suzanna in "Becky Shaw" off Broadway and reprises the role as Marsha Mason’s daughter this week. "She’s like the ‘honest mother’ that you wish you did and didn’t have," says Bergl. "She’s the truth teller with this sort of amazing perspective.”

Mason, who was performing in the play “Impressionism” on Broadway, saw Fonda in “33 Variations” – the two had dinner a couple times, lamenting the dearth of roles for performers of their vintage. I mentioned Fonda’s comment about slowing down.

“I think that’s a very good sign of a more enlightened perspective on being a human and on age," said Mason. "Once you get past your 50s and go into your 60s and certainly your 70s, it is a time for more reflection and spirituality to enter your life and process everything you’ve done, so there’s a real appreciation.”

Mason left Los Angeles years ago, tired of the life here as a single woman. She bought land in New Mexico and created an organic farm.

She admits that she's unsure why certain things or people – including her former husband Neil Simon – attract her. “And I make kind of spontaneous, surprising choices sometimes – at least, that’s what people tell me. I married Neil in three weeks. My first husband in two months. Then I moved to New Mexico and bought raw land, built this farm. I can’t really tell you what it was, other than I just sort of went with it.” Mason laughed, saying that she was also being impetuous.

L.A. Theatre Works records five performances of “Becky Shaw” before a live audience beginning tonight at the Skirball Center. The show will be broadcast later on public radio stations, including KPCC. Jane Fonda reprises her Broadway role in “33 Variations” beginning tonight at the Music Center in Los Angeles.

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