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Theatre in Review: The Government Inspector (Red Bull Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street)

Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, Michael Urie. Photo: Carol Rosegg

The first thing we see in Jesse Berger's production of Nikolai Gogol's classic farce is a collection of town officials -- a distinctly shabby lot, it should be noted -- moving in a circle, their collective mood one of high anxiety. It's an image straight of out of a Marx Brothers comedy: Are we in Freedonia, the chaotic mini-nation that provides the setting for Duck Soup, the Marxes' most anarchic comedy? Almost, but not quite: The Government Inspector unfolds in a Russian town in the middle of nowhere, a municipality so obscure that every form of corruption and cupidity has been allowed to flourish. Among other things, the doctor doesn't speak Russian; the hospital's rooms are so tiny they only admit the smallest of children; the judge is raising geese in his courtroom; and the last time anyone saw the schoolteacher at work, he was "at the blackboard rearranging the letters of the Tsar's name to spell dirty words." It's life under the tsars, given a tweak that Groucho, Chico, and Harpo would easily recognize.

So far off the map is this little burg that the town fathers can hardly credit the rumor that a highly placed functionary has arrived from St Petersburg to spy on them. The judge speculates that it's a plot by a hostile, warlike foreign power, but the mayor objects, saying, "Who would invade us? Ride out of town in any direction, you won't hit a border for years!" "It would be too obvious to invade at the border," muses the Judge. "A really crafty enemy would invade in the middle."

Gogol's play, which we don't get to see all that often, has been subjected to all sorts of adaptations and approaches over the last century and a half, ranging from gimlet-eyed social satire to surreal comedy; here, Jeffrey Hatcher has converted the script into a series of vaudeville routines. (His approach is not unlike David Ives' extremely loose revamps of the works of Molière and his contemporaries.) The good news is that Berger has rounded up a gaggle of first-class clowns and set them loose to play. The title character, Hlestakov -- a minor, down-on-his-luck government functionary mistaken for an intimate of the Tsar -- is in the capable hands of Michael Urie, who here adds physical comedy to his growing skillset. We first see him on the edge of suicide, constantly diverted from pulling the trigger by the sight of his fetching appearance in the mirror. Later, having stuffed the gun in his pants, his attempts at crossing his legs lead to him nearly being unmanned. Buoyed by a few glasses too many of the local wine, he starts embroidering his past, insisting that he is a writer whose works include The Wealth of Nations, Sense and Sensibility, and Eugene Onegin. By the end of the first act, he is left dangling on the edge of Alexis Distler's two-tier set, looking rather like Harold Lloyd hanging on to those clock hands. Urie does double duty here as the production's motor, driving the increasingly frantic action while also earning plenty of laughs. He is an inspired choice.

Anton Antonovich, the mayor, Michael McGrath is the very model of a petty provincial bureaucrat, his military apparel -- check out the red sash draped carelessly across his paunch -- in direct conflict with his seedy beard and unkempt appearance. (A distinctly Napoleonic hat completes his look, but, in moments of distraction, he is as likely to don a lampshade or a soup tureen.) His faith in his fellow man is nil: Looking especially gimlet-eyed, he grouses about Hlestakov, saying, "What I don't understand is the fella has such power, yet he looks like some gelatinous, unformed baby thing. Oh, take me back to a time when frightening people looked frightening, and the weak and stupid wore signs." Whether barking orders at his woefully incompetent underlings, lamenting the latest downtick in his fortunes, or comparing his wife to a seven-hundred-pound watermelon, McGrath is an invaluable presence.

His wife, Anna, is portrayed by Mary Testa, who has been transformed by the costume designer, Tilly Grimes, into a rose-tinted flotilla of ribbons and crinolines, moving around with the imperturbability of a battleship. ("Why are you dressed like a lamp in a whorehouse?" wonders her husband, surveying one of her gowns.) Thrilled at the prospect of meeting a glamorous arrival from the big city, she sets out to prove her cosmopolitan bona fides: "Our guest is a sophisticated and cultural gentleman from the capital," she instructs a servant. "Put out the crystal spittoon." Trying to demonstrate her mastery of French, she commits a linguistic massacre, adding six additional vowel sounds to each phrase. And, utterly convinced of her seductiveness, she decides to take Hlestakov as a lover, with amusingly disastrous results -- his head lost in the voluminous folds of her skirt before being mercifully interrupted by her husband.

Several others make inestimable contributions. Arnie Burton is on hand as the fey, gossipy postmaster, who delights in reading everyone's mail, and as Osip, Hlestakov's faithless manservant. ("What kind of eyes does he like in a woman?" inquires Anna. "Open, but it's not a requirement," Osip cracks.) Talene Monahon raises the adolescent sulk to a fine art as Anton and Anna's daughter, Marya, who, between hostile glares, shows she has a wrestler's touch when it comes to flirting with men. (As Hlestakov, who is rather taken with her, notes, "She has that sullen-cum-sultry 'I don't care if you live or die' attitude that says 'I want you, but I can't be bothered to move my facial muscles.'") Also on hand are Mary Lou Rosato as a pair of servants, one of them a dwarf; Tom Alan Robbins as the judge, who proves to be woefully inept at passing bribes; Stephen DeRosa, as the hospital's director and the interpreter for the gibberish-spouting doctor; and Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl, their silhouettes reshaped by costumes that make them look like a pair of human commas, as a Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee pair who come in for all sorts of abuse.

It's one scene of Marxian madness after another -- the town fathers even get stuffed into a closet, in a manner not unlike the famous stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera -- but duty compels me to add that, in the second act, the fun dries up a bit, thanks to the sheer relentlessness of the enterprise. With each scene functioning as its own complete sketch and each line primed for comic blood, the action becomes a bit wearying. A more organically conceived production would, I think, have a stronger sense of progression, as the townspeople increasingly debase themselves to win Hlestakov's favor; when the moment of recognition comes, everyone realizing, to their collective horror, that they have been played, the effect isn't as strong as it might have been. (Hatcher does include a speech for Hlestakov, directed at the audience, that mordantly reminds us that people trading away their dignity to those in power is not a phenomenon confined to the stage.) As it is, you may find you have had your fill of these fools a little sooner that you should.

I'm also not entirely sure that Distler's set -- two levels with horizontal curtains, creating an effect rather like the upper and lower berth in a 1930s passenger train -- is the ideal solution. The lower level contains Antonovich's office and Hlestakov's shabby hotel room. The upper level is a reception room in the Antonovich home. The interiors are all on the money, and, seated fairly well back from the stage, I had a fine view. However, I have heard complaints from people seated in the front rows about having to crane their necks throughout the second act; if you go, try to sit upwards of, say, Row G. Grimes' costumes are wonders of wit, and the lighting, by Megan Lang and Peter West, and the music and sound design, by Greg Pliska, are totally solid.

Still, even if this isn't exactly The Government Inspector as Gogol wrote it, it does offer a bunch of clowns a golden opportunity to show off, and the playwright's message about the gullibility of ordinary people in the face of power is all too pertinent in the present political climate. Just think, if he were alive today, what Gogol could do with the current scene in Washington. -- David Barbour

(5 June 2017)

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