By Samuel L. Leiter
Jesse Berger, director of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 Russian classic, The Government Inspector (a.k.a. The Inspector General, as in the 1949 Danny Kaye movie version), must have prepared his actors by feeding them a steady diet of Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Duck Soup. One can imagine him instructing the actors in Jeffrey Hatcher’s Marx Brothers-like adaptation to “Give it all the shtick you’ve got. Slam the doors, writhe on the floor, pitch the puns, climb in through the window, cram into the closet, and fall off the stage, if necessary. Just remember, keep firing when you see the whites of their teeth!”
Although long considered Russia’s most popular play, best known abroad for its legendary 1926 Meyerhold staging, Revizor, as the Russians call it, is a tough one to pull off. Starting with a fine 1922 Yiddish production, this Red Bull Theater staging is New York’s sixth; it’s also only the third worth the effort. The continued pertinence of its satire on corrupt officialdom, though, makes it hard to let go, no matter how freely it’s treated.
Hatcher himself emphasizes in his program notes:
Audiences can see the contemporary versions of Gogol’s mayor and his cohorts every minute of the day on television, so they’ll have no problem making the connection between an 1830s Russian backwater and a House of Representatives oversight committee.
Hatcher adeptly slims Gogol’s wordy original down to a lightning-fast two hours (with one intermission), uses doubling to allow a cast of 14 to play twice as many characters, and gives the dialogue a contemporary spin filled with punchy one-liners on which the laugh-hungry actors feast like there’s no tomorrow.
Visually, the show remains in period (with great costumes by Tilly Grimes), appearing to borrow a scenic idea from an 1835 Austrian comedy by Johann Nestroy called Upstairs, Downstairs, or the Whims of Fortune. Alexis Distler’s set, as in that play, is on two levels, one directly above the other. The arrangement is not technically necessary but it does inspire several laughs, the most noteworthy depending on star Michael Urie’s physical agility.
Urie (Homos) brings his impressive charm and comic gifts to the role of Hlestakov (often spelled Khlestakov), a penniless doofus staying with his cynical servant, Osip (Arnie Burton), at a provincial inn. When the postmaster (also Burton, sensational in two sharply contrasting roles), who reads everyone’s mail, discovers that a government inspector from St. Petersburg is coming, the town’s officials, thinking it’s Hlestakov, quiver for fear he’ll discover their shady shenanigans.
This rogues’ gallery of buffoonish bureaucrats, led by Mayor Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath), includes the Judge (Tom Alan Roberts), the School Principal (David Manis), the Hospital Director (Stephen DeRosa), the Doctor (James Rana), and the police chief (Luis Moreno); there’s also a pair of chubby landowners, Bobchinsky (Ryan Garbayo) and Dobchinsky (Ben Mehl), whose similarity is an automatic humor machine.
Urie’s Hlestakov is so vain he can’t commit suicide because he’s too busy preening about his appearance in front of a mirror. Stupid though he is, once he catches on to the mistake about his identity he takes every opportunity to squeeze the crooked pols for bribes. He also accepts the outrageous flirtations of the mayor’s rotund, man-hungry wife, Anna Andreyevna (Mary Testa), and predatory daughter, Marya Antonovna (Talene Monahan), setting up a riotous mother-daughter rivalry.
Sometimes the production seems like a free-for-all game of “I can be funnier than you,” the actors going as far overboard as they can to play up their clownish characters. The biggest drawback to this is that too much emphasis is placed on being funny for funny’s sake rather than as an outgrowth of honest, if exaggerated, attempts to accomplish specific objectives. It’s one reason I initially held back from joining much of the howling thunder that erupted practically the moment the curtain opened.
The biggest disappointment in Berger’s otherwise clever caper is his rather bland picturization of the famous final tableau following the deception’s exposure. But there’s enough sidesplitting material—from Berger’s stream of sight gags to Hatcher’s delicious wisecracks—to make up for this lapse.
With Urie’s dexterous facial and physical farcing leading the way, followed by the rollicking histrionics of the brilliantly versatile Burton, the marvelously officious McGrath, the perfectly pretentious Testa, the man-hungry maiden Monahan, and the rest of Berger’s crazy crew of comical caricatures, the Red Bull’s Government Inspector passes inspection with flying colors.
The Government Inspector
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through June 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).