Bach at Leipzig is two hours of thee-a-taahh and act-ing, the way Jon Lovitz says it on those Subway commercials. That's not all bad, and it gets better after the intermission, which many ticket holders at Sunday's matinee spent apologizing to whomever they had brought along. In fact, the second half rather cleverly dissects the clichs and bombast that so test people's patience in the first half. By the time the curtain dropped, I understood . . . but I couldn't quite bring myself to forgive.
Set in 1722 and drenched in the creepy flamboyance of that period's sense of culture and privilege, Bach at Leipzig is based on a historical incident—the search for a new organ master at the city's St. Thomas Church. In real life, musical genius Johann Sebastian Bach got the job. But playwright Itamar Moses—who's only 28 and being heralded as some sort of genius himself—offers a comic speculation about what kind of underhanded means the overmatched losers might have tried in their desperation to win. More experienced reviewers than I have called Bach at Leipzig "a classic farce," and meant it in a good way.
Me, I don't like farces, especially classic ones. Their contrived predicaments, smarty-pants repartee and slapsticky hijinks seem too self-serving, providing little more than an opportunity for theater people to wink and strut and show off for each other. If you go in for that kind of stuff, however, Bach at Leipzig executes it at the highest level, featuring a cast that has obviously worked hard to perfectly time every zinger and pratfall.
Eventually, the script comments a little on how these well-worn plot devices connect to human nature and also shows off how the play's dramatic structure mimics the musical fugues—simple melodic themes, repeated and varied—that Bach composed. Interesting!
Ultimately, however, those insights are overwhelmed by the exaggerated theatricality of the performances. What is it, exactly, with the style of speech that actors invariably give their characters in plays set in Western Europe? It's vaguely British, and less vaguely fey, but nobody in real life has probably ever talked that way—especially not in Leipzig. If they really had to talk funny, they could have at least done it with a German accent.
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BACH AT LEIPZIG AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY THEATER, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH OCT. 15. $28-$60.