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Bach at Leipzig

Michael Emerson, Reg Rogers, and Richard Easton are brilliant in Itamar Moses' sometimes dazzling if overly intellectual comedy. logo
Michael Emerson, Reg Rogers, Richard Easton, and Andrew Weems
in Bach at Leipzig
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Virtuoso, meaning an extremely accomplished and masterful artist. It's a term that was no doubt used in 18th-century Germany when people referred to the never-seen title character of Itamar Moses' Bach at Leipzig, for Johann Sebastian's organ playing was in a class by iself -- as, of course, were his compositions. The word comes to mind while watching Michael Emerson, Reg Rogers, and Richard Easton as three of the eight organists (including Bach) who end up competing for the job of Kappelmeister (chief organist) in the German city. Each actor gives a brilliant lesson in comic acting.

But does the definition of virtuoso extend to the 28-year-old Moses? Without question, his intermittently dazzling feats of wordplay and extraordinary command of structure are something to experience; as he reveals to music-challenged audience members at the start of Act II, Bach at Leipzig is constructed as a fugue, a multi-part form of composition that Bach himself favored. No wonder the über-virtuoso Tom Stoppard has not only taken Moses under his wing but has written the preface to the published version of the play. However, unlike Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" or Stoppard's The Real Thing, Bach at Leipzig is less than completely satisfying. For all his technical skill, Moses doesn't quite manage to raise the play beyond the level of an intellectual exercise. When all is said and done, it really doesn't matter who gets the coveted post (which, historically, is a foregone conclusion) or what these men have gained or lost in their machinations to win it.

Neither does Pam McKinnon's production hit all of its targets. The first act is often way too static for what is clearly meant to be a farce, and not all of the director's casting choices work out as brilliantly as Rogers, Emerson, and Easton. David Zinn's church set -- complete with many doors that, surprisingly, are never slammed -- is little more than serviceable, and the same can be said of Matthew J. Lefebvre's properly European costumes.

As the play begins, it appears that the contest to succeed Leipzig's current chief organist, Johann Kuhnau, may really be a two-man race. In one corner is Johann Freidrich Fasch (Boyd Gaines, whose on-stage righteousness is beginning to get wearisome), Kuhnau's one-time star pupil. Fasch broke with his teacher over their differences in both composition methods and religious principles. (Audience members are advised to brush up on comparative German religions before entering the New York Theatre Workshop.) In the other corner is Georg Balthasar Schott (Emerson), a local boy who has only made semi-good and who carries a chip on his shoulder the size of the Berlin Wall.

Soon enough, four others enter the fray. In one of Moses' cleverest if overly repeated jokes, all are named Georg or Johann: Georg Lenck (Rogers), so poor that he doesn't have a middle name and forever coming up with outlandish schemes to get his hands on some moolah; Georg Friedrich Kaufmann (Easton), a doddering old gent who is easily hoodwinked; Johann Martin Steindorff (Jeffrey Carlson), a foppish young man who, among his other peccadillos, is sleeping with Kaufmann's wife; and Johann Christopher Graupner (Andrew Weems), an insecure musician who is destined to always be second best in any contest. Also making a brief appearance is a character referred to as The Greatest Organist in Germany (Jonathan Donahue), who inspires great awe from his compatriots without ever uttering a word.

As these men enter into devious bargains with each other to eliminate their rivals from the competition, Moses makes it clear that, even for people of high morality, no trick is too terrible and no consequence too unpleasant when one's eye is firmly on the prize. Rogers, biting into his role with gusto, is particularly hilarious as he sinks lower and lower into the depths of depravity. (He also looks pretty good in a dress.) We marvel at the playwright's ingenuity as scheme after scheme is unveiled, along with some remarkable interconnections between the six men.

What we don't do, for the most part, is genuinely feel their pain and longing. There are two major exceptions: When the truth finally dawns on Kaufmann about his wife's infidelity, Easton makes the moment heart-rending, and when Schott finally comes ear-to-ear with true greatness, Emerson is stunning. Perhaps Moses will incorporate more heart and less head into his next outing; Bach at Leipzig shows great promise but not true virtuosity.

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