What Did Tom Stoppard Think Was So Brilliant about Itamar Moses’ Bach at Leipzig?

Tom Stoppard, prolific playwright of brilliantly complex, historically influenced works, wrote in 2005 that Bach at Leipzig was the only play he ever solicited from an author. After sharing a train with Itamar Moses, Stoppard was entranced enough by the young playwright’s work to write a preface endorsing Moses’ “farcical fugue.” After suffering through the play that comes with such an impressive seal of approval, one has to wonder if perhaps Moses slipped Stoppard a ricky on that railroad journey.

The date, as we are so often reminded, is 1722. The place: Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), Leipzig, Germany. The characters: a motley assortment of Stoppard cast-offs and wannabes, spouting long-winded speeches about God, mortality, and the art of music. At the death of Johann Kuhnau, the church’s organist and head of the music school, former pupils, bitter rivals, and aspiring power-mongers descend, each fervently hoping to be chosen by the city’s council as Kuhnau’s successor. And, unlike the title promises, Bach is not present among the group of eager candidates (although he does eventually arrive, but remains unseen).

What follows over the course of the next two and a half hours (and could have been conveyed in two, tops) is a dragging, sadly empty attempt at subterfuge by a group of greedy, grasping men. Fasch (Steven Pounders) is obsessed with claiming his estranged mentor’s post. Steindoff (Stephen Levall) is an aristocrat’s virile ne’er-do-well son. Graupner (David Coffee) is the long-suffering “second best” organist, always one step behind his nemesis, Telemann (Art Peden). Grumpy Schott (David H. Lambert), a continuous reject of the music school as a child, has been spending his years as the organist at Leipzig’s slightly pitiable church in the nearby cobbler’s district. Pickpocket and gambler Lenck (Andy Baldwin, with a performance so winning it nearly makes up for the dreadful material), hopes to win the job in order to earn enough money and prestige to marry his high-born sweetheart. And Kaufmann (Chris Hauge) wanders through the tangle of plots and alliances, happily befuddled and blissfully unaware.

 If he was emulating Stoppard, Moses shows with Bach that he still has some studying to do. If he was using him as inspiration to put his own twist on the man’s legendary theatrical style, he has a long way to go. Either way, the result is an embarrassing imitation. Using a classic musical fugue as an outline, the action unfolds with each man getting his solo (through letters to various wives, lovers, and family) before melding back into the action. Unfortunately, director Robin Armstrong takes the fugue literally throughout Act II, shuffling her actors around the stage in an awkward dance that gets repeated to the point of unease.

Also repeated are the jokes each man tells and the situations each, in turn, finds themself in. Perhaps Moses intended these tiresome retreads to yield new, fascinating insight into the characters through revealing details and differing perspectives, but the outcome only mirrors a reaction had by Schott late in the play: yes, we have heard this before, almost to the point where we can recite it by heart. And no, it’s not funny.

An odd, faux play-within-a-play (don’t ask) does provide a revealing and self-conscious glance into Moses’ view of his own craft. “Direct address to the audience is by far the laziest form of exposition,” one character exclaims, drawing a laugh. As the breaking of the fourth wall is a constant yet strangley distancing device employed throughout the play, the personally aware remark comes off not as charmingly self-deprecating, but cruelly true.

Considering the last play I attended at Circle Theatre was also a saga exploring the fragile egos and devious impulses of classical musicians (Michael Hollinger’s Opus), it is difficult not to draw comparisons. Sadly, it’s not even a contest—Bach at Leipzig not only hits all the wrong notes, it doesn’t even play in the right key.

Photo: David H.M. Lambert, Steven Pounders, Andy Baldwin, and Stephen Levall in Bach at Leipzig (Courtesy of the Circle Theatre).