Bach at Leipzig
ACT Theatre; ends Sun., May 29
Twenty-seven-year-old playwright Itamar Moses' brainy comedy doesn't settle for cheap laughs, though it has a lot of them. He's got more—much more—on his mind, and you'd better resign yourself to his occasionally exhausting ambitions or forgo the experience altogether. Stick around, though, and . . . well, you'll find out—and you may find Moses' name ingrained in your memory.
It's Germany in 1722 and the vultures descend on the cultural mecca of Leipzig after the city's pre-eminent organist and musical director, Johann Kuhnau, sends out word of his impending death, then promptly keels forward onto his keys. Six musicians—plus world-renowned baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (Todd J. Bjurstrom), silent between his imperious entrances and exits—show up to stake claim on what is "the most coveted position in German music." They don't make it easy for one another. Between rounds of preening one-upmanship, the composers dish out various righteous religious and aesthetic doctrines that, each insists, will crown him the winner of this contest—though none of them is beyond a little guilt, blackmail, and/or intimidation if it eliminates the competition.
Our players are a disparate, desperate bunch: radical Johann Friedrich Fasch (Laurence Ballard), who—in one of Moses' many great, big, gorgeous speeches—claims that it should be "the godliness in [music] that matters," and not the literal use of the word "God"; Georg Balthasar Schott (David Pichette), a stringent traditionalist who shudders at the thought of progress ("This is not Italy!"); weary Johann Christoph Graupner (John Procaccino), constantly boxing with Telemann's giant shadow; Georg Lenck (Daniel Rappaport), a loser who sees one last chance at glory; feather-brained Georg Freidrich Kaufmann (R. Hamilton Wright); and young upstart Johann Martin Steindorff (Max Gordon Moore). Steindorff casually reminds Lenck that Lenck owes Steindorff's father a great deal of money; Schott casually reminds Steindorff that Steindorff has slept with an ungodly number of married women; playwright Moses reminds us that everyone is named either Johann or Georg; and so on. Bach, who remains unseen throughout, arrives offstage late in the game, his natural genius quietly shaming the pettiness of his contemporaries.
There's a lot here: a look at pride, the meaning and duties of talent, and deep, discursive ruminations on whether music and people can—or should—evolve without spiritual faith. And that's before Moses goes on a terrific tear at the fourth wall and has the pure-of-heart Kaufmann duped into believing that all the duplicitous maneuvering he keeps accidentally witnessing is merely the rehearsal for a play titled The Undeniably Credulous Fool.
Moses' craft has cunning risk and humor—even if it would be considerably riskier to trust that we were smart enough to spot his cunning on our own. The play teasingly explains itself, explains itself again, then explains how clever it was for explaining itself. It reaches the spectacular heights of such self-referential ingenuity at the opening of Act II, when Fasch's monologue about a fugue reveals that the play we're watching is just such a composition, repeating and deconstructing itself even as it moves forward. While Fasch addresses the musical form in a letter to his wife, the other characters swiftly, wordlessly re-enact all the frantic, tangled plot points of Act I right up to the last moment before intermission, until Fasch is left hollering that "structure is only clear in retrospect" and depends "on the attentiveness of the listener."
This mixture of metaphilosophy and farce makes for head games with goose-pimply pleasures when it's working on both counts, though you won't be alone if you start to feel fatigued and wish that Moses would either become the baby Tom Stoppard he's crying out to be or just relax and let loose with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Leipzig. Director Kurt Beattie tries to muscle through the thing by having his cast play it at crowd-pleaser level throughout, as if constant punching at Moses' less delicate, more digressive thoughts on God, Art, and Humanity were the only way to keep the production from turning into Jumpers—the Stoppard play about God, Art, and Humanity with which ACT rather disastrously attempted to wrestle last season.
About half the show is a good time, and the other half is working hard at showing us it's having a good time. Many of the actors' attempts at double takes and false starts and nyuk-nyuk-nyuks are so slowly timed and out of sync that you can practically see the chalk outlines waiting for them before they stiff. And the men aren't entirely sure if they're supposed to be effete or, you know, that way. (Maybe this is too much a matter of personal taste; one man's fancy is, I suppose, another man's fancy.) Rappaport and an appealing but too-green Moore are often tripping over their dense lines or clenching tightly onto them as though they fear they'll get away. The other main four do stellar work individually, but Beattie doesn't get their rhythms working as a team. I think I liked Procaccino the best, because he seems to know how preposterous the period costumes are; he plays the browbeaten Graupner like a guy who's just a little over the whole poofy charade.
So Leipzig is show-offy work, yes, and overstuffed, fearlessly attempting to do too much at once. Yet, like its protagonists, it's overstuffed with a sometimes rapturous hubris, as if an ecstatic Moses wants to pack all of his future great plays into this one piece . . . right now . . . and, look!, he's doing it, see? See?! That you do see—and, on occasion, thrill to it—is reason enough to experience the early stages of a young man's potentially limitless talent. Let's hope his gifts are given the guidance so affectingly missed by his characters here. "One moves boldly forward," sighs Schott, "only to find that one was facing the wrong direction." STEVE WIECKING
Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center; ends Sun., May 29
David (Fuddy Meers) Lindsay-Abaire's play may be the lightest dark comedy to flit across a Seattle stage in a long time. Certainly the elements of darkness in this quick-paced, quirky work are preposterously inky: A 16-year-old daughter, Kimberly (Diane Felty), afflicted with a rare genetic condition that is aging her 4.5 times faster than normal; a narcissistic, hypochondriacal and pregnant mother (Roberta Plonski) who considers herself "the Kansas of wives"; a besotted bozo of a father (Adam Sewall) employed as a pump jockey at Chevron; a deviously charismatic lesbian aunt (Ellen Dessler) who implicates Kimberly in a check-cashing scam; and an impossibly geeky boy (Michael Scott) with a penchant for Kimberly and anagrams.
This is some messed-up territory, aggravated by the characters' crippling lack of communication. Not that these folks aren't trying—they just can't get past their own considerable baggage. The interactions among these grotesques explode like fragmenting grenades, each character so self-involved and unconsciously insensitive that simple declaratives fly like barbs, and random targets are hit with viciously ironic precision. "This baby's going to be perfect," Mom says serenely, right in front of her mortally challenged, 16-going-on-72 daughter; neither Mom nor Dad remembers Kimberly's birthday, which may indeed be her last. (They're just too—what? Dumb? Obtuse? Scared? High?) Not since Faulkner's As I Lay Dying has such a collection of filial white trash been so sealed off one from the other.
And yet, despite such unremitting cretinism, Kimberly Akimbo comes across with all the effervescent levity of a mid- afternoon sitcom. ReAct director David Hsieh gives the play a nimble, playful pace, opting to waft rather than wallow in the seemingly downbeat tone of Lindsay-Abaire's writing. However, this doesn't entirely explain the production's (not unpleasant) cognitive dissonance.
The answer, rather, is as simple as it is sneaky, and resides in the playwright's own pig-in-a-poke moralism. There is an old Jewish tradition that says when saying goodbye to people, always tell them you love them—they might die tomorrow. No matter how monstrously Lindsay-Abaire wishes to portray his characters, he can't disguise the unflagging optimism of his message: Be nice to people, they may not be around for long. To push so hard at a universe of uplift via Todd (Happiness) Solondz squalor, however, requires some form of postmodern melodrama, and Lindsay-Abaire doesn't seem to have the stomach for that grand gesture. Instead, things just kind of drift along, and what plot twists do lurk are only sweetly predictable.
Fortunately, the play here drifts pleasantly along on strong, confident performances, especially those of Felty and Scott. As the senescent Kimberly, Felty is wonderfully understated in depicting the lethargic fury of teen girl angst; Scott is charmingly odd and oddly charming as her nonjudgmental suitor. In the end, these two escape adult hell, take the money, and run into a Six Flags sunset. So, sure, it all goes down easy—a Sling Blade slicing through Forrest Gump—but it begs the question: What does it say about us that it's so often the savant or the dim-witted who provides the moral compass? RICHARD MORIN