The nominal premise of “Bach at Leipzig” is that of a competition among Germany’s greatest organists, circa 1722, for the coveted post of that city’s chief musical director. But if that suggests a suspenseful, who’ll-win-out thriller, you haven’t reckoned on the intellectual pretensions of playwright Itamar Moses who, citing Tom Stoppard as an influence, has a much loftier agenda in mind. Wordy and dense if not especially deep, this play will always be caviar to the general, but it needs more of a fighting chance than it’s given at the South Coast Rep.
First act brings together a group of aspirants, all named Johann or Georg, to the prestigious Thomaskirche, where epistolary exposition and a series of two-person confrontations set up elaborate maneuvering for position, with more schemes and counterschemes and suggested alliances than an entire season of “Survivor.” Some of the men espouse Calvinism, others are freethinkers; some take different sides in the war brewing between rival cities; but all have little to do but wait for the auditions and the outcome, which, given the play’s title, is in little doubt.
Only after intermission, when the idealistic Fasch (Stephen Caffrey) reads another letter to his wife, do we realize the entire first act was structured as a fugue, as re-enacted in dumb show by the others to the accompaniment of Bach’s Fugue in A Minor. Later in act two, the cuckolded Kaufmann (John-David Keller) is led to believe the feverish plotting is actually a performance of a play called “The Unbelievably Credulous Fool,” during which he offers jovial commentary.
Thinness and stasis of the overall plot leave the distinct impression that Moses constructed “Bach at Leipzig” largely in order to support these two set pieces — the play-within-a-play and, especially, the fugue demo. Ingenious as they are, each smacks of an academic stunt, on the order of writing a novel without ever using the letter “e,” or translating “Hamlet” into Esperanto. Yes, the labors are impressive, but since they’re not integral to the whole; the playwright simply seems to be calling attention to his own cleverness.
Beyond those would-be coups de theatre, the play mostly offers humor derived from Johann/Georg confusions and quibbles (characteristic example: “Lenck intends to bribe his way into the post.” “You don’t say.” “I just did.”), as well as Stoppardesque arguments about the nature of art — its structures and its relationship to both God and man.
As with another youthful play about nonentities stuck in an anteroom while great events are happening behind closed doors, Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” this kind of stuff needs careful handling.
In an author’s note in the published text warning against “a heightened and distancing style of performance,” Moses dictates the roles be “inhabited as fully as possible. … Play it ‘for real.’ ” Director Art Manke and company seem to have taken this as a crab canon — described in the play as a message that can be read just as easily backward — because their efforts couldn’t be more heightened or less real, and they distance the action beyond the aud’s ability to remain involved.
On the South Coast stage, bowing is convincingly period, faces are rouged and hand gestures are curved and expressive, but no one has attended to the guts of the play. The language is pitched throughout on the airiest, most effete level possible, with the words, not the actors’ intentionality, in the driver’s seat.
The applicants’ various motivations — pride, religious fervor, financial ruin, filial duty — are easily strong enough to prompt riveting stage behavior, but in this production, they are discussed rather than felt. One never believes for a moment that these men are desperate to win the chief organist’s job. They await their make-or-break auditions, and depart from them, with zero tension. Nothing seems at stake, so the production becomes tedious.
Thesps speak very fast and dash onstage and off throughout, which creates bustle but not genuine action.
Keller, Jeffrey Hutchinson as the dissolute Lenck and Tony Abatemarco as the traditionalist Schott come the closest to bringing their characters to life, while Caffrey, whose Fasch is supposed to be the most passionately committed of the bunch, for that reason falls the shortest.
Maggie Morgan’s costumes are in the richly effective South Coast tradition, though Geoff Korf’s lighting tends to reveal rather than disguise the painted flats of Thomas Buderwitz’s otherwise handsome set.
Final tableau, of a second-rate composer listening in ecstasy to the masterwork of a musical genius, can’t help but evoke “Amadeus.” By that point, weary and overwhelmed, the viewer reminded of the Shaffer work may be likely to paraphrase that play’s Emperor and sniff: “Too many words.”