What an impressive group of thespians strutting and fretting their two and a half hours upon the stage. But what an intellectually twee construct for them to be displayed in. Itamar Moses' tale — which combines the structure of Baroque music, the intellectual debates of 18th-century Lutheranism, and the ugly little politics of auditioning — of six musicians arriving to compete for the suddenly vacant slot of organ master at Leipzig's Thomaskirke attempts the thing that Tom Stoppard does so well: that seductively complex, seamlessly engineered exercise that, in the ideal, plays like clockwork.
This play, however, which is admirable in an academic sort of way, is not only happy to show you its cogs and gears but will even stop to admire its own cleverness. To wit, the top of the second act has a character explain the construction of the fugue, which is illustrated by silently rerunning the similarly constructed first act, which begins with the "subject" and adds four additional voices. To add a sixth voice, which of course Moses has done, would be an achievement indeed. "What can follow next," comes the question, "save thunderous applause?" Which, about half a beat late, the audience recognizes as its cue. It's a play one wants to love, despite its fondness for chestnuts along the line of, "What brings you here?" "Stagecoach, primarily..." (ba dum bum), but the author has taken care of that already.
Manke has conceived his production as a bright, shiny thing and tries to keep the pace at a nice trot, though he is occasionally undone by the sheer wordiness of the frequently epistolary script and, at the performance reviewed, some murderous line-fluffing. Thomas Buderwitz's pretty set is in keeping with the styles, resulting in what looks like a German church interior by way of Disney animation.
Jeffrey Hutchinson (charmingly roguish) and Tony Abatemarco (giving excellent Mrs. Danvers) lead the ensemble of ambitious organists, with able support being lent by Stephen Caffrey, John-David Keller, Timothy Landfield and, in a silent yet pivotal role, Sean H. Hemeon. The richly costumed (by Maggie Morgan) Erik Sorensen, in the role of a musician who wants only to be a dancer, is so disarmingly pretty he looks as if he should be out reviving slumbering princesses instead. His later appearance in the unlikely though dance-appropriate garb of vines and scraps is a welcome one.
Presented by and at South Coast Repertory at the Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue.-Fri. 7:45 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 2 & 7:45 p.m. Sep. 30-Oct. 15. (714) 708-5555.