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A CurtainUp Review
The Government Inspector
By Elyse Sommer
Update: The show was a big hit at the Duke and will therefore return for a limited engagement at New World Stages from 7/05/17 to 8/28/17.
But here's good news. Even in the worst of times, we sometimes get what we want — and more. Case in point: The Red Bull Theater's The Government Inspector now at the Duke on 42nd Street. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Nicolai Gogol's 1831 satire of a dishonest bureaucracy is loaded with laughs; but, like all good comedies, even those going way over the top, it's underpinned by all too real relevancy.
Gogol's mistaken identity farce about a Russian town misled by a hierarchy of buffoons is a sad but true reminder that a powerful minority of greedy incompetents can cause misery for the majority of a town, state or country's populace. Consequently, even as we laugh at the play's fictional Russians' antics we can't completely forget the dangerously bad behavior of our current American leaders.
I can't think of a better company than Red Bull Theater to give Hatcher's smartly modernized and streamlined adaptation a production to land every joke and double entendre. No matter what the play — whether it's a bloody Jacobean dramas like The Revenger's Tragedy, a restoration classics like The School for Scandal
, a history drama like Edward the Second by Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe, or the Bard's own Coriolanus — Red Bull founding artistic director Jesse Berger is sure to bring it to the stage with enormous flair and a sublime cast. The Government Inspector now at the Duke on 42nd Street is no exception. What a cast! What a clever set! What witty plot and humor supporting costumes!
While Hatcher's version has trimmed away some of the dull, most likely to fall flat dialogue and jokes, this farce that's often dubbed as "the most Russian of Russian plays" remains true to its central joke: a corrupt group of a small town's big-wigs believe that a nobody staying at a local inn is the incognito inspector sent by the higher-ups in St. Petersburg to check on the town's management.
Mr. Berger's approach here is the no holds barred vaudevillian style made famous during the heyday of lengthy television skits by Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett. Though perhaps a tad too TV-sitcomish, the zany fun of The Government Inspector kicks in the minute the curtain opens on the office of the town's Mayor (Michael McGrath, who here looks and sounds like a Nathan Lane dopplegänger). Actually that rising curtain is just one quarter of Alexis Distler's clever two-level box set.
McGrath's Mayor, is a textbook example of the no longer much talked about Peter Principle to describe an individual rising in stature and position until he reaches his downfall at the lofty level of his human incompetence. In responding to the letter announcing the imminent arrival of the title character, the Mayor and his compatriots zestfully demonstrate their expertise at enriching themselves instead of insuring that their departments provide the services to which citizens are entitled. Yet, for all the vaudevillian shtick, the terrific actors manage to keep their characters' excesses within the realm of relatable reality.
With a cast of 14 playing an even larger number (23) of characters, it's a tough call to give credit to all the star turns. The Mayor is well supported by his band of self-serving public servants. They include the local Judge (Tom Alan Robbins), school principal (David Manis), hospital director (Stephen DeRosa), doctor (James Rana), postmaster (Arnie Burton) and police chief (Luis Moreno). The Mayor orders them to make their bailiwicks function as more than opportunities for collecting bribess, at least during the Government Inspector's visit. His realistic answer to their lame attempts to legitimize their malfeasance is "it's a bribe if you eat it, it's a bribe if you drink it, it's a bribe if you spend an hour with it and it tells you it's always been attracted to powerful men but has another appointment at eight!"
If I had to single out the funniest of these buffoons, it would be Arnie Burton as the nosy Postmaster. He reappears (unrecognizably so) as the servant of Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, the down-on-his luck civil servant the Mayor and company all mistake for the real deal.
Good as all these actors are, it's clear that Michael Urie is very much the play's star from the moment the other half of that bottom curtain opens and takes us to a room at a local Inn. It's here that the debt ridden, vain Hlestakov has been hanging out and contemplating suicide (though, Burton's wry Osip assures us "not as long as there's a mirror left in Russia").
Hlestakov becomes the beneficiary of the Mayor and company's buying into the news that he's the feared Inspector as a result of a report by hilarious Tweedledee/Tweedledum channeling pair of gossips named Bobchinsky (Ryan Garbayo) and Dobchinsky (Ben Mehl). Urie's timing and physical agility matches that of the late Danny Kaye (who starred in a not especially good movie version of the play called The Inspector General).
Before long the upper half of the curtain opens onto the Mayor's home where Hlestakov, like Cinderella at the ball, is now a welcome guest and presented with gifts from the other misbehaved Russians currying his favor. There are also romantic overtures from Anna Andreyevna (Mary Testa), the mayor's discontented wife and her disdainful daughter Marya Antonovna, (Talene Monahan).
Urie does a brilliant drunk scene. Even more hilarious is a scene in which he impresses the smitten Maria by laying claim to authorship of some of the era's most famous books.
Grishka the servant (one of the versatile Mary Lou Rosato's 3 roles) is sort of a stand-in for all of us watching Hlestakov get more and more caught up in this comic charade, and finally making his "gotcha" getaway.
It's unlikely that our golden-haired President will ever see this play and acknowledge, as the deposed Tsar did, that it impressively got at everyone, most of all him. More likely he'd tweet "fake art, bad art! "
While this The Government Inspector is not going to let you forget what's happening at what adapter Jeffrey Hatcher refers to as "Donaldsburg", don't let that keep you from seeing this expertly staged spoof. It's a lot easier to find laughs in the bad behavior of these Imperial Russians than that of either the current Russian and American leaders.
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The Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol
Adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher
Directed by Jesse Berger
Cast (Alphabetical): Arnie Burton, Stephen DeRosa, Ryanan Garbayo, Kelly Hutchinson, David Manis, Michael McGrath, Ben Mehl, Talene Monahan, Luis Moreno, James Rana, Tom Alan Robbins, Mary Lou Rosato Mary Testa, Michael Urie.
Set design by Alexis Distler
Costume design by Tilly Grimes
Lighting design by Megan Lang, Peter West
Sound design and original song by Greg Pliska
Hair and wig design: Dave Bova
Properties Master: Andrew Diaz
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager:Hannah Woodward
Running Time: 2 hours, includes 1 intermission
Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street
From 5/16/17; opening 6/01/17; closing 6/24/17.
Reopening at New World Stages for a 6-week run, from 7/05/17 to 8/20/17
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