A cultivated marriage of fugue and farce, “Bach at Leipzig” seems far more intoxicated with its own cleverness than most audiences are likely to be. Itamar Moses is a young playwright whose work has attracted support from his chief influence, Tom Stoppard. In the Stoppardian model, the philosophical discourse, the erudite ransacking of history and fanciful flights of absurdist wordplay are woven together with a purpose. But this windy, overwritten comedy about the scheming also-rans vying for the prestigious position of organ master at Leipzig’s Thomaskirche in 1722 is an amorphous and fairly futile imitation, sustained by neither laughs nor intellectual heft.
With its historical setting and high-toned musical bent, Moses’ play seems inevitably destined for comparison with “Amadeus,” and the conflicts in both works are sparked by artistic rivalry and professional jealousy. But where Peter Shaffer crafted a compelling duel between a bratty genius and an embittered mediocrity, the battling musicians in “Bach at Leipzig” are more mouthpieces than men.
While this poses a challenge to the actors, they embody their distinguishing character traits with lip-smacking relish and display a lively yet relaxed command of the playwright’s baroque language. And in a handsome production with an austere single set by David Zinn and amusing period costumes by Mathew J. Lefebvre, director Pam MacKinnon marshals the expert cast with surprising energy given that they have so little to do beyond verbiage.
The comedy is far more expository than revelatory; it digs itself into a hole of laborious backgrounding and never manages to climb back out. And Moses fails to animate his chosen canvas of political, social, religious and aesthetic ferment in Germany in any especially interesting or illuminating way.
After the long-serving kapellmeister dies, falling face-first onto his keyboard, seven rivals for the coveted post descend on Leipzig, each with his own agenda. Fasch (Boyd Gaines) is a progressive liberal, eager to shape the future of German music in new directions, while Schott (Michael Emerson) is a stuffy traditionalist angling to gain control of the Thomasschule, from which he was repeatedly rejected. Lenck (Reg Rogers) is a light-fingered shyster deep in debt, with a score to settle against the well-heeled family of philandering fop Steindorff (Jeffrey Carlson), whose interest in music is solely as a means of winning his father’s approval. Stodgy Calvinist Graupner (Andrew Weems) has a chip on his shoulder about being a perpetual runner-up, and Kaufmann (Richard Easton) is a cheerful buffoon. Seventh contender is Telemann (Jonathan Donahue), a regal figure referred to in a mixture of awe and resentment as “the greatest organist in Germany.”
Taking his structural cue from a Bach fugue, with its central melody joined by multiple voices in countersubject, Moses spins an elaborate web of plots and deceptions, blackmailing, kidnapping, bribery and forged letters, illicit pacts and betrayals.
The air of self-consciousness that pervades the exercise is amplified in act two, when clueless Kaufmann overhears a devious scheme being hatched, then buys the excuse that the two auditioning organists were rehearsing a play titled “The Unbelievably Credulous Fool.”
This provides the playwright with an opportunity for self-referential jokes about dramatic form, content and structure, winking ostentatiously as he grants himself license to use every hoary theatrical device in the book. (“Direct address to the audience is by far the laziest form of exposition,” intones Kaufmann in a play rife with variations on it.)
Moses tirelessly hammers a series of running jokes: The confusion arising from seemingly every musician in Germany being called Johann or Georg; the extremes to which the musicians must go to hide their scores on their persons; the drugging and removal of Steindorff from the competition, for which all, including Steindorff, claim responsibility; and the “gorgeous speaking voice” of Telemann, who is seen but not heard.
But while the play busily juggles cerebral humor with low comedy, its conniving characters raise only the occasional snicker. Riotous it ain’t.
Called upon to enliven vast chunks of monologue in the form of letters to loved ones and co-conspirators, the actors do what they can to make the wildly over-extended play less of an endurance test. Emerson and Rogers provide some relief from all the numbing talk with their droll physical comedy, while Easton makes an endearing dolt. As the most relatively sane and stable of the contenders, it falls to Gaines to anchor the comedy. But not even this talented cast can make it fly.