I recently conveyed to a colleague my surprise that there has not been a New York production (at least not one that I am aware of) of The Government Inspector, Gogol’s 19th-century Russian classic comedy, since a 1994 Broadway revival produced by the National Actors Theatre and led by Tony Randall. After all, it is a crowd-pleasing farce of mistaken identity, not unlike Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. The colleague responded by rhetorically asking how often any classic Russian plays (with the exception of Chekhov) are seen nowadays. Point taken.
Maybe that is why it has been left to the Red Bull Theater Company (which has made a niche out of producing rarely seen historic dramas, including the violent, crazy, sex-infused thriller-tragedies of the Jacobean Era) to present Jeffrey Hatcher’s loose and wild adaptation of The Government Inspector, in an effervescent, extremely enjoyable production directed by Jesse Berger (artistic director of Red Bull) and starring Michael Urie (TV’s Ugly Betty), with a superb ensemble (all giving delightfully outsized performances) that includes Mary Testa (Xanadu), Arnie Burton (39 Steps), Stephen DeRosa (Into the Woods) and Michael McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It).
A merciless satire of local-level governmental corruption, The Government Inspector begins with the mayor of a rural Russian province (McGrath) revealing to his fellow municipal officials that the Czarist regime has secretly sent an inspector to check up on the town. Considering the poor state of all their public institutions (including a hospital in which the rooms are too small for adults, a courthouse littered with animal waste and a postal service in which all correspondence is reviewed for the sake of gossip) and the peasants and merchants’ hatred of the favor-seeking mayor, this is not an ideal time for an official visit.
Learning that a young man from the city has been staying at the local inn for the past week, they conclude that he must be the government inspector. But Hlestakov is just a slow-witted shmuck who just lost all his money at card games and can’t afford to make his way home, let alone pay for his meals at the inn. Expecting to be arrested, Hlestakov is instead greeted by the mayor, who begs for mercy, offers him wads of cash and invites him to spend the night at his far nicer home, where Hlestakov gets drunk on acidic alcoholic beverages and receives even more adoration, including from the mayor’s loud and swooning wife (Testa) and oddball young daughter (Talene Monahona).
Eventually, even Hlestakov is convinced by his elderly servant (Burton) to skip town, cash in hand, at which point the citizens learn the truth and the extent to which they have made fools of themselves, and Gogol drops the big surprise that ends the play on a perfect note.
Berger’s production feels like a broad, movement-heavy musical comedy, along the lines of Forum or The Producers. In fact, the initial meeting between McGrath and Urie recalls the initial meeting of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in The Producers. While McGrath is consumed with puffed-up bravado, Urie revels in all-out hysteria, flamboyance and giddiness – to the point where, in the drunken stupor, he falls off the two-level set and is left hanging for dear life.
Hatcher (whose only Broadway credit was Never Gonna Dance, a flop 2003 dance musical based on the Fred and Ginger movie Swing Time) maintains the essential structure of Gogol’s play, but he goes beyond just translating the original Russian text. He has a field day coming up with his own one-liners and adding in countless sexual innuendos. As presented by Red Bull, The Government Inspector is a joy ride from start to finish. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another 20-plus years for it to be seen in New York. In fact, why doesn’t another classics-oriented company such as Theatre for a New Audience pick up this production for an extended run?