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The Government Inspector

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 1, 2017

Mary Testa, Michael McGrath, and Michael Urie
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol's 1836 satiric play about public corruption in Tsarist Russia, opening tonight at The Duke, has been given the full "Marxist" treatment by Red Bull Theater and its artistic director Jesse Berger. Just to be clear, it's not Karl Marx I am referring to, but that other Marx family, brothers Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, whose style of zany buffoonery is echoed in the show from start to end.

Where other productions of the play generally have invited us to appreciate its satire through the writer's cleverness and wit, everything here is thoroughly and unabashedly soaked in slapstick, farce, and low comedy. Michael Urie, Michael McGrath, and Mary Testa gloriously head the rambunctious 14-member cast in playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation, which accentuates the overweening dishonesty of its foolish and sublimely incompetent characters.

As the play begins, the mayor (McGrath) and his anxious town officials have just gotten word that there's a Government Inspector making the rounds of the provinces, rooting out and punishing bribery, nepotism, and shady dealings. And the more we find out about this bunch of ne'er-do-wells, the more we can appreciate the appropriateness of their panic. There is, for instance, the judge (Tom Alan Robbins), whose courtroom is being used as a breeding facility to raise geese; the medical director (Stephen DeRosa), who runs a hospital where the rooms are so tiny, there isn't enough space to put beds in them; and the school principal (David Manis), who is in charge of an education system with exceptionally idiotic teachers.

Enter Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Urie), a minor government clerk who is slowly making his way across Russia to his home village with his servant Osip (Arnie Burton, who also plays the deliciously gossipy Postmaster). With barely a kopek between them, the pair is holed up in a scrungy inn, subsisting on a diet of rat soup and cabbage. Nevertheless, the officials become convinced that this stranger in their midst is the dreaded Government Inspector, traveling incognito. That Ivan is an amoral, puffed-up popinjay matters not a whit to the town's "leading citizens." What they fear most is being caught with their hands in the till while failing to provide anything remotely resembling public service.

That's the setup. From here on, having established its premise, the production quickly descends (or ascends) into full-blown madness and mayhem. The officials assume, naturally, that the only way to mollify the "Government Inspector" is to offer him bribes. And since Ivan is in a fairly desperate situation himself, he is quite amenable to accepting the mayor's explanation: "Here, take it! Two hundred rubles. It's a new reimbursement program to bring in tourists and business people to our locality. If you're willing to come, we'll pay you to be here."

When Ivan gratefully pockets the money, the mayor decides he has hit on the right strategy. To further sweeten the deal, he invites Ivan to stay in his home, where we meet his lascivious wife (Mary Testa) and snarly daughter (Talene Monahon), both of whom are eager social climbers who happily compete for Ivan's attention. (Check out Testa's skewering of French phrases, and the fact that there is no one there who recognizes it for what it is. Sample: "Je suis fatigue dans mon derrier! Entre, por favor!")

There's also a sublimely funny scene involving some heavy drinking (lots of toasts to the Tsar, the Tsarina, and to Mother Russia) during which Ivan gets increasingly sillier and grandiose, boasting of his talents as a poet, novelist, and musician. The drunker he gets, the more he indulges in pretentiousness, none of which arouses any suspicions in the eager-to-please characters. ("You're Nom de Plume? Nom de Plume is my favorite writer!" gushes the mayor's wife). Here Michael Urie also shows us he has great physical comedy chops, ending the scene by taking a lurching shortcut between the two levels of Alexis Distler's smartly-designed set, which boasts of three separate performance spaces. (Compliments, too, for the way in which The Duke's seating has been configured to assure everyone in the audience has an excellent view of all of the going-on).

The madness expands exponentially as the frantic officials lose control altogether when a horde of disgruntled townspeople show up, eager to air their grievances to the Government Inspector. In the end, Ivan manages to escape with his pockets full of cash just ahead of the "big reveal" that would have been his ruin, leaving the mayor and the other corrupt officials holding the bag.

All in all, Jesse Berger and Red Bull Theater have put together a marvelous romp of a production, which boasts richly comical performances by its wild and woolly cast. If you are in the mood for good, silly fun, The Government Inspector will more than fill the bill.

The Government Inspector
Through June 24
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th & 8th Avenues
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