The Government Inspector
Red Bull Theater stages a revival of Gogol's satire of provincial politics.
If television had been invented a century earlier, Nikolai Gogol would have pioneered the sitcom. His uproarious comedy of small-town corruption, The Government Inspector, is proof enough of that. Filled with grotesque characters hatching harebrained schemes, the play exudes the timing and tension we associate with classic TV comedy. Gogol even saw fit to conclude his play with a ludicrous freeze frame that catches his characters at the exact moment their house of cards collapses (and roll credits). Red Bull Theater captures Gogol's mischievous frivolity of the play in this irreverent and highly watchable adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, which is now playing the Duke on 42nd Street.
The play takes place in a small provincial town in 19th-century Russia. The mayor (Michael McGrath) has been tipped off about the imminent arrival of an inspector from St. Petersburg. He conspires with the local judge (Tom Alan Robbins), school principal (David Manis), and hospital director (Stephen DeRosa) to zhoosh up their crumbling sectors of governance until the official leaves. They figure that if worse comes to worst, a bribe will make their Potemkin village more believable.
Unfortunately for them, the man they mistake for this visiting dignitary is Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), a low-level clerk and spendthrift from the imperial capital. He's just about to be thrown out of the local inn for running up a large unpaid bill when the mayor swoops in and offers to take care of everything. He then whisks Hlestakov away to his home to receive more bribes and booze. Naturally, Hlestakov obliges.
Urie kills in this role. A wobbly scene in which Hlestakov becomes drunk on a foul local wine approaches Lucille Ball's Vitameatavegamin bit in its precision. Urie's flamboyant mugging feels right for this wannabe superfluous man (Hlestakov often seems like a direct satire of the frequently name-checked Eugene Onegin, sans the family money). It also makes the fact that all the women lust after him even more hilarious. McGrath is an excellent straight man to Urie's clown, his self-seriousness very much the source of his comedy.
The cast is full of great comedians: Mary Testa plays the mayor's wife like a Russian Scarlett O'Hara (after a few vodkas). Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl do a fine Tweedledee and Tweedledum routine as two portly local landowners. Arnie Burton is a riot as the nosy postmaster: It's as if John Waters wandered into a Marx Brothers film.
Director Jesse Berger creates this atmosphere of lunacy through a surprisingly compelling mixture of slapstick comedy and operatic design. Greg Pliska's romantic sound design conjures visions of dueling aristocrats and dying swans (the timing of the intermission to end with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" is an inspired choice). Tilly Grimes' ostentatious costume plot is no less grand: The mayor asks his hoop-skirt-wearing wife, "Why are you dressed like a lamp in a whorehouse?" And we know exactly what he means. The physical performances stand out against the backdrop of this over-the-top period design.
Alexis Distler's two-tier dollhouse set giveth and taketh away from the proceedings: While it conveys an antique theatricality with its sliding red curtains and ornate wallpaper (that matches the upholstery), it is also a terrible waste of playing space. The bottom level is used in the first two scenes and then never again for the remainder of the play. Not only does this constrain Berger's blocking, but it leaves those audience members seated close to the stage craning their necks upward for two-thirds of the play (do yourself a favor and don't sit any closer than Row D). Even if the staging is occasionally bungled, you won't want to miss a moment of this zippy two-hour production which is full of laughs from beginning to end thanks to the unwavering commitment of the cast.
It is true that Hatcher's adaptation is not scrupulously faithful to Gogol's original text: References and one-liners have been liberally massaged for a modern American audience. At one point, Hatcher even incorporates one of Gogol's more inexplicable sight gags into the larger plot, adding to the glee of the finale. Even if this is not an exact translation, it maintains a fidelity to the spirit of Gogol's brilliant satire that will leave you with the uncomfortable suspicion that 19th-century Russia isn't all that different from 21st-century America. When civic life seems hopelessly, irrevocably broken, sometimes all you can do is laugh.