- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The literary-footnote premise can be intriguing, as in the case of Shelagh Stephenson’s charming and thought-provoking “Experiment With an Air Pump” or the Tom Stoppard plays that combine pyrotechnical wit with book learning.

Playwright Itamar Moses cites Mr. Stoppard as a major influence, and although it’s probably wiser to emulate the esteemed British writer than, say, the guys from “Jackass,” writing in his inimitable style seems a daunting task. Mr. Moses’ play “Bach at Leipzig” is a drawing-room farce with lofty pretensions that are akin to attempting to dress flatulence humor in a pair of fancy silk drawers.

Rep Stage’s production, directed with buoyant musicality by Kasi Campbell, contains many lilting moments, but that might be thanks to a dream cast that far exceeds the source material. Even gifted comedic actors such as Karl Kippola, Bruce Nelson, Bill Largess, David Marks and Alexander Strain ultimately are subdued by this wordy and fustily academic play.

“Bach at Leipzig” is reminiscent of Mr. Stoppard’s early work “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” in its thrusting of minor characters into starring roles.

Hamlet is never seen in “Rosencrantz,” nor is Johann Sebastian Bach in Mr. Moses’ comedy — although the composer and organist is discussed in rapturous speeches that recall Salieri’s half-jealous, half-worshipful insights into Mozart’s genius in the play “Amadeus.” Bach sweeps in as a deus ex machina figure at the end of “Bach at Leipzig,” easily winning the coveted post of cantor and director of music at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig in 1722 after the revered organist Johann Kuhnau expires at the keyboard. The bulk of the play presents a gaggle of lesser musicians vying for the position, using elaborate schemes, double crosses and flimsy alliances.

Based on real-life events and figures — including the mannered and grandiose Georg Philipp Telemann (Alex Zavistovich) — “Bach at Leipzig” introduces us to the various aspirants, including Fasch (Mr. Kippola), who broke from his beloved mentor and the Lutheran Church over the role of religion in music; Schott (Mr. Nelson), an embittered toady who hangs around the fringes of St. Thomas Church but has never gained acceptance; the dandified aristocrat Steindorff (Matt Dunphy); Lenck (Mr. Strain), a poor musician who gambles and steals to get by; the pious Calvinist and perpetual also-ran Graupner (Mr. Marks); and Kauffmann (Mr. Largess), a cuckholded dimwit.

The first act veers between the musicians sinking to all sorts of lows to snare the post and writing confessional letters to their wives and paramours, which they send off via carrier pigeons. It is only during the top of the second act that you realize the whole first half was constructed as a fugue — and in case you missed that conceit, the actors re-enact all that proceeded in a hilarious mock ballet set to the music of Bach’s Fugue in A Minor. The play-within-a-play device is carried even further when Kauffmann is led to believe all the various plotting is actually rehearsal for a farce titled “The Unbelievably Credulous Fool,” and he is so taken in that he offers up his own amused critical commentary.

The fugue re-enactment and the play-within-a-play are the most polished and captivating aspects of “Bach at Leipzig.” Beyond these two set pieces, much of the dialogue is pure corn dressed up for Easter Sunday (“You don’t say.” “I just did.”) or endless jokes about the fact that everyone in Germany is named either Johann or Georg. Mr. Moses attempts Stoppardesque arguments about the relationship between God and man and the nature of art, but they are more clever than intellectually breathtaking.

The motivations of the musicians — financial gain, paternal duty, loyalty to God, revenge — are immediate and understandable, but they are simply talked about to death rather than acted upon. Words, words, words is all “Bach at Leipzig” comes down to, and the absence of true music is keenly felt.

***

WHAT: “Bach at Leipzig” by Itamar Moses

WHERE: Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. on March 29. Through April 1.

TICKETS: $12 to $24

PHONE: 410/772-4900

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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