"Leipzig, June 1722." That dateline, proclaimed repeatedly in the opening stretches of Itamar Moses' windy play "Bach at Leipzig," may well lodge permanently in the minds of audience members, becoming one of those useless pieces of pseudo-information that plague the idling psyche forever, settling alongside the lyrics of songs you never liked and plot points from episodes of "The Brady Bunch."
Little else about this ardent but hollow literary homage is likely to make a similarly durable impression, or for that matter a happy one. Sitting through Mr. Moses' reverent attempt to mimic the brainy irreverence of Tom Stoppard is like being forced to consume glass after glass of flat Champagne, with no hope of giddy inebriation in the offing. Inundated with arcana about religious and musical squabbles in 18th-century Germany, besieged by sophomoric jokes, you leave stuffed and queasy but sadly sober.
The play, which opened last night at New York Theater Workshop in a handsome, superbly cast production directed by Pam MacKinnon, bears many of the hallmarks of Mr. Stoppard's erudition-enhanced comedies like "Travesties" or "The Invention of Love," in which stuffy historical or literary figures spring to life and do the hokey-pokey in between shapely little exegeses of big ideas. What's missing is the necessary yeast of true artistic inspiration. The 28-year-old Mr. Moses, clearly a writer of nimble verbal gifts and high ambition, expends much time, energy and vocabulary to say nothing of consequence.
The play is essentially a fictional footnote to an actual footnote in the life of Johann Sebastian Bach. In Leipzig in 1722, Johann Kuhnau, the organist at the city's leading church, played his last fugue. The town council charged with replacing him considered several candidates before settling on the first of classical music's celebrated three B's. As the ill-fated nobodies in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" inspired Mr. Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead," so do the bit players in this tale hog center stage in Mr. Moses' early-instruments version of "American Idol" - Bach himself playing the role of a deus ex machina who never arrives.
One by one, in a structure aping the musical form of the fugue, the competitors introduce themselves by reading long letters to various wives, lovers and associates. The innovator Fasch (Boyd Gaines) is a former student of Kuhnau who broke with his mentor over their differing ideas of how to serve God through music. Lenck (Reg Rogers) is a scamp with a spotty past who hopes to restore his reputation and finances by gaining the prestigious post. Steindorff (Jeffrey Carlson) is a sexually voracious young aristocrat from a town at daggers drawn with the neighboring burg, whence hails the dotty older Kaufmann (Richard Easton), yet another candidate. Guarding the door of the church from all comers is the downtrodden Schott (Michael Emerson), the organist at one of Leipzig's lesser churches, who hopes that his chance at the big time has arrived at last.
Plots are hatched, conspiracies are fomented, "Survivor"-style alliances are formed as the candidates try to outmaneuver one another to win the big prize. But for all the fancy machinery of its plotting, the play never works up the farcical energy to sweep us past the dialogue's draggy digressions into learned discourse on the conflicts between the Pietists and the Lutherans, or the intricacy of the fugue form, or the symbiotic relationship between structure and content in drama.
Mr. Moses is particularly ill advised to be lecturing us on that last subject, since the play's needlessly complicated architecture fails to conceal the void of real ideas at its core. These bewigged figures give many pretty-sounding speeches on the aforementioned subjects, but unlike the talkative types in Mr. Stoppard's best plays, they do not espouse or embody philosophies of universal interest or enduring resonance, but remain self-infatuated party guests gabbling on about subjects in which few will have an avid interest.
And while Mr. Stoppard's work can sometimes be top-heavy with book-learnin' - not everyone emerged from the recent Broadway revival of "Jumpers" agog with excitement at his or her new knowledge of metaphysics - he is a great entertainer who orchestrates his tomfoolery with genuine wit. Mr. Moses may someday develop a fine ear for comedy, but "Bach at Leipzig" suggests a serious pitch problem. Considering how frequently the same jokes recur, it's alarming that no one involved in the production seems to have noticed how few are actually funny.
That said, the cast assembled by Ms. MacKinnon includes some seriously skilled comic actors, and each manages to earn a robust laugh or two by tethering the hot-air balloons of their roles to earthy shtick. As the dimwitted Kaufmann, Mr. Easton, resplendent in the most mountainous of wigs (the costumes by Mathew J. LeFebvre are terrific), wanders the stage in a happy daze, oblivious at all times to the plots and counterplots he keeps stumbling upon. Mr. Rogers proves yet again that he is a master at playing craven snivelers. And Mr. Emerson, his blue eyes permanently radiating a deer-in-the-headlights gaze, displays a wonderful gift for graceful physical comedy.
Mr. Moses' affection for his aesthetic mentor is certainly sincere, and Mr. Stoppard has generously reciprocated, giving "Bach at Leipzig" a seal of approval by writing an introduction to the published version. But what's in it for us? For most of the audience, watching "Bach at Leipzig" will be about as rewarding as reading a long, gushy love letter addressed to someone else.
Bach at Leipzig
Text by Itamar Moses; directed by Pam MacKinnon; sets by David Zinn; costumes by Mathew J. LeFebvre; lighting by David Lander; sound by John Gromada; fight choreography by Felix Ivanov; production stage management, C. A. Clark; assistant stage management, Jonathan Donahue. Presented by the New York Theater Workshop, James C. Nicola, artistic director; Lynn Moffat, managing director. At 79 East Fourth Street, East Village; (212) 239-6200. Through Dec. 18. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Boyd Gaines (Johann Friedrich Fasch), Michael Emerson (Georg Balthasar Schott), Reg Rogers (Georg Lenck), Richard Easton (Georg Friedrich Kaufmann), Jeffrey Carlson (Johann Martin Steindorff), Andrew Weems (Johann Christoph Graupner) and Jonathan Donahue (the Greatest Organist in Germany).