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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

What could be funnier than a gaggle of organists in wigs? A lot, it turns out. The new comedy by Itamar Moses, Bach in Leipzig, is about six musicians back in 1722 who are all clamoring to get the job of organ master at the most hallowed church in Germany. Sounds like a laugh riot, no?

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To be fair, Bach in Leipzig does earn a few chuckles, as there are genuinely amusing moments; but Moses has employed the old Airplane/Naked Gun axiom of comedy: pile the bad jokes so high that people eventually start laughing in appreciation (or submission) of just how bad the jokes are. The problem with Bach in Leipzig is that in-between these schticky "who's on first"-type gags, Moses also wants us to admire his scholarly erudition.

In one sequence he succeeds. At the start of Act Two, Moses has a character quickly recount everything that happened in Act One, which reveals that the whole play has been a riff on the structure of the fugue--the musical form that Bach would revolutionize. It's a clever scene and it allows for some enjoyable pantomime--but with this move, Moses shows his hand: Bach in Leipzig is just a elegantly crafted wind-up toy, and once Moses reveals his gimmick, the audience is stuck watching it for another hour as it winds down and sputters out.

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The performers try valiantly to bring this concoction of lofty music, 18th-century Germanic politics, and low humor to life--though its hard to listen to characters speak about the theory of predeterminism at the same time that they make jokes like: "You don't say?" "Yes, I just did"... I promised myself that if Moses uncorked "Surely, you can't be serious... I am and don't call me Shirley," I would walk out. Luckily, I didn't have to and as a result I can say that Bach in Leipzig is written in the spirit of Molière and early Tom Stoppard, but on stage at South Coast Repertory, it plays like late Mel Brooks, from the Men in Tights period, where the comedy smacks of desperation instead of inspiration.

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Another young playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire made his name writing the zany farces Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo. Then early this year, his play Rabbit Hole opened on Broadway and shocked everyone. Not only wasn't it a comedy--it was also incredibly powerful. Rabbit Hole is the story of a family trying to deal with loss of a child. It couldn't be more simple, and yet the emotions and situations that Lindsay-Abaire presents feel frighteningly complex. On one level Rabbit Hole succeeds simply because the playwright has an incredible ear for contemporary suburban dialogue. The small talk you hear on stage feels like it could be overheard if you just hung around long enough in any Restoration Hardware or Applebee's.

On another level, the play offers a casual, but very real portrait of grief--namely that of the main character: Becca. Seeing the Broadway production, I wondered if Becca's fragile, intelligent, defensive, and fascinating qualities were more a result of actress Cynthia Nixon, than Lindsay-Abaire's play. Nixon rightly won a Tony for her beautiful performance, and in fact, the whole cast in New York was excellent; but I'm happy to say that after seeing the revival of Rabbit Hole currently running at the Geffen, Lindsay-Abaire's play holds up extremely well.

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Director Carolyn Cantor has assembled a strong cast and stages the drama with a light, but assured touch. Amy Ryan plays Becca with a similar laconic delivery as Ms. Nixon, but doesn't have quite the same presence--no longer is Becca the master of her own living room. This allows Tate Donovan (who plays Becca's husband Howie) and Missy Yager (as Becca's sister, Izzy) more of the spotlight, and the play is no worse for it. None of the performances ring false in this quiet, but accomplished production of a fine, new play that I suspect will be staged and re-staged for some time to come.

David Lindsay Abaire's Rabbit Hole runs through October 22 at the Geffen Playhouse; Bach in Leipzig closes this Sunday at South Coast Repertory.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


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