It's possible that the funniest play that will ever be written will be jammed with jokes about Lutheranism and Calvinism. Stranger things have happened. And certainly, with his new play Bach at Leipzig, which just opened at the New York Theatre Workshop, Itamar Moses wants to prove that the farcical possibilities of such a subject are as rich as a consummately crafted piece of music.
But despite what musical relativists might tell you, there's a difference between a symphony and a toothpaste jingle. Each serves its own special purpose, and there's nothing wrong with a composer endeavoring to write either. The only requirement is that he or she be aware of the difference between the forms, and be able to meet the special requirements and challenges of each. That, however, can't be said of Moses, a jingle writer of a dramatist who here is modeling himself on one of the theatre's most accomplished symphonists, Tom Stoppard.
If there's a more Stoppardian idea than using a host of 18th century musical philosophies to reflect the time's religious unrest, chances are Stoppard himself has already come up with it. And choosing to dramatize that story in the form of a fugue, with a single subject and its handful of variations being elaborated upon at great length, is likewise something Stoppard probably would have been tickled to devise. But Stoppard, possessing a finely tuned theatrical ear, would have the necessary knowledge to not just conduct mellifluous turns of phrase and passing moments of humorous embellishment, but to weave them together into a synchronous whole.
Though Moses has an intimate familiarity with the instruments constituting his orchestra, he lacks the experience or vision needed to ensure they all sound good together. So while it seems like it should matter that the thrust of the story (set in 1722) is the search for a new organist at Leipzig's Thomaskirche, what come across most vividly is instead Moses's anything-for-a-joke mentality, his yearning to unearth as much humor as possible from what is, on the surface, not an obviously lighthearted topic.
"By the time you receive this letter, I will have sent it," states one of the position's eventual aspirants within the play's first minute. This perfectly sets the tone for an evening that will derive most of its humor from its fugue-like repetition of one-liners, each of its central seven characters being named either Johann or Georg, and a contemporary self-awareness of the ridiculousness of the play's overarching form.
And yes, all this is interspersed with grand comic riffs on the Calvinists, Lutherans, and the poised-to-invade Catholics. But, for sake of relevance, it's generally viewed through the conflict of Johann Friedrich Fasch (Boyd Gaines), who believes that compositions can and should be separated from their devotional uses, and George Balthasar Schott (Michael Emerson), who finds such ideas heretical. And each new arrival in the procession of prospective musicians that continues throughout the play's first act suggests that it's the long-ranging future of music - more than just at this one church - that really hangs in the balance.
They spend their time scheming, screaming, fooling, and tilting with each other, usually achieving little more than lobbing or dodging a barely pointed comic barb before darting away again. This makes most of the roles more apropos for slapstick comedians than nuanced actors, but this company (under the direction of Pam MacKinnon) achieves enough of a balance to make this work as well as possible, at least as far as it goes: Gaines and Emerson give the two smoothest performances, but everyone is solid, with Andrew Weems, a quiet riot as eternal also-ran Johann Christoph Graupner, and Richard Easton, drolly doddering as the aging Georg Friedrich Kaufmann, particularly impressive in their carefully overwrought roles.
Still, it often seems as though Moses has more use for stand-up than standouts. What else can explain Graupner's wandering around, muttering rhythmically pleasing self-help phrases? Or the early second-act recreation of the first act, entirely pantomimed, while Fasch describes for all of us the construction of the flawless fugue? These are desperate devices that Stoppard, for his frequent use of recondite references and intricate examination of scholarly subjects, has never needed to employ as cheaply.
But true wit and insight, two reliable fixtures of Stoppard's works, aren't present here. Their absence is noteworthy only because one gets the impression that Moses believes they can be invoked through meticulous attention to desultory detail. Perhaps they can be, but it would take, well, a Tom Stoppard to resolve these kinds of contradictions into something that pleases the ear, the mind, and the funny bone, all at the same time.
Moses has no trouble with the last; he's still working on the first two. He's a young playwright with time to grow, so this is excusable. And perhaps Bach at Leipzig presages finer things from Moses, who is nothing if not ambitious in his attempts to tread so forthrightly in Stoppard's formidable footsteps. But if a dish of grape gumballs resembles a plate of caviar, are you likely to be satisfied if what you ingest isn't what you expect?
Bach at Leipzig