Bach at Leipzig
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
November 12, 2005
Thinking about seeing Bach at Leipzig, now playing at New York Theatre Workshop?
Consider the following:
Pro: Bach at Leipzig is the New York debut of playwright Itamar Moses—a writer of uncommon intelligence and imagination. His fast-paced play never misses a beat or a punchline and is always a few steps ahead of us.
Pro: Bach at Leipzig is helmed by Pam MacKinnon, a seasoned professional also new to New York, whose witty and adroit direction ensures that our eyes and ears are at the right place at the right time, making sure we don’t miss a thing.
Pro: Bach at Leipzig has one of the best ensemble of actors currently in performance on any stage in the city: not a word is lost, not a gesture wasted. These seven men toss our attention back and forth with grace and bravura, and we never see them sweat.
Con: There is only one. Bach at Leipzig forgot to give us something to do.
The play is so well-constructed—so economical—so perfected, that all we are left to do is to say, genuinely, “Good for you!”
Set in Leipzig, Germany in 1722, Bach concerns the death of Johan Kuhnau, the revered organist at the Thomaskirche, and the seven candidates vying to be his replacement. Said seven, all of whom happen to be named either Johann or Georg, are distinguished by their various hungers for this coveted position—from the noble desire to compose godly music to share with his fellow man (such is the hope of Johann Friedrich Fasch), to the less honorable needs of getting out of debt (Georg Lenck), or pleasing one’s parents (Johann Martin Steindorff). To delve into the minutiae of their motivations would take as long as the play itself, but more importantly, it would also ruin a number of frequently delightful surprises. The outcome is given away in the title; it is the process that should and often does interest us.
The trouble is I was yawning the entire time. Not out of boredom, but for lack of an opportunity to join in. Moses’s play is very very clever: the first act has a form that quickly becomes aggressively predictable; he begins the second act with a revelation that, for me, justified the first half (again, apologies, but I won’t do you the disservice of sharing it with you). In fact, throughout the evening, every time I thought the playwright had been neglectful, he narratively, or sometimes directly via the speech of one of his characters, swooped in and saved the proverbial day. But the result was that I found my vigilance to be pointless; Bach at Leipzig was so attentive to my theatre-going needs that I didn’t have a chance to figure out from moment-to-moment what those needs actually were.
While funny depends on the participation of others, cleverness does not. Too much cleverness excludes others. This is my central problem with the play: I felt like my being there was incidental; that the play—a farce, if I’ve not made that clear already— is scientific, all method and no madness. And experiencing madness (that is, feeling the extraordinary emotional circumstances of the characters in a certain uncommon situation) is what I find pleasurable in the theatre. Laughing, crying, dropping my jaw; you know, that sort of thing.
MacKinnon’s masterful production brings the play as close as possible to achieving this. Her designers (particularly David Zinn with his majestic anteroom) and her actors exhibit a wit that keeps eluding the playwright. As I said earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent, but if I had to single out a performance, it would be Richard Easton’s turn as George Friedrich Kaufmann, a ridiculously credulous and perpetually delighted old fellow who is fooled by his fellow musicians as the day of auditions approaches (not to mention being cuckolded by his wife at home).
I am in favor of you seeing Bach at Leipzig, largely because of this terrific incarnation. But also because I think Itamar Moses is a playwright to watch. I just hope his next stage outing is a little less finished, a little flawed, so we the audience—human, so unfinished and interestingly flawed ourselves—can have something with which to identify, to grapple, to live.