The funniest play to hit New York this year is Nickolai Gogol’s lampooning classic satire of 19th-century Russian provincial life – The Government Inspector. Brilliantly adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, faultlessly staged by Jesse Berger, it depicts the pettiness and corruption of provisional government, which still seems relevant around the world today.
The play can be performed as a savage satire or as a public assault on venal politicians or broadly as a mindless comedy romp, which is the route Berger takes. The Government Inspector must be amusing. It must create laughter that ripples in solid blasts and at its peak, great gales. This new production is always dazzlingly funny. Without laughter, there is no point of playing The Government Inspector.
The players are staggeringly competent and no one is miscast. All have a wacky gift of comedy. It requires a special ability to create Gogol’s characters, who are rogues in that they steal, cheat, lie, take bribes – and at the same time are great fools. Easily taken in by other rogues, or in this case, by one rogue who fools the whole town.
Most of them are officials of this small city. As the Mayor, Michael McGrath gives an off-center and superb performance. His wife Anna Andreyevna (Mary Testa) is terrific, as is their quieter daughter Anna Andreyevna (Talene Monahon). There is also a crowd of towners, all giving lofty performances.
When there are no outsiders to pry into their conduct, they run the city badly and make themselves comfortable at the expense of the public. They neglect the merchants whom they bleed, the underlings who they treated badly. When they get word that a government inspector is coming from Petersburg and that he is traveling incognito, they become panicky and foolish.
At the local theater is a strange fellow, Ivan Khlestakov (Michael Urie, the star of the show), who refuses to pay his bills, rarely goes out. He is all together mysterious. He must be the government inspector! He suddenly must be the fellow who is going to check their records, discover their frauds and peculations and very likely to get them sent to Siberia.
He isn’t, of course, the man from Petersburg. He is a young government clerk on holiday, fresh out of money because he has lost everything in a card game. But Urie, in his virtuoso performance, plays every histrionic trick in the book. He is sly. He can play other games, too, and when the mayor calls and waits on him obsequiously, then invites him to stay at his home, where people offer him food and drink or money, he takes what he can get, proposes to the mayor’s wife and daughter and hilariously gets away in time!
The story is simple enough. The characters are not so simple. They are representatives of the great class of public officials who have plagued cities of the world as long as there have been cities. Writing in 1833, Gogol made his malefactors so funny that Tsar Nicholas laughed. That made it possible to put on The Government Inspector at a time when the Russian theater was heavily censored. That made the play popular, as it has been ever since, in most counties. But that did not make it actor-proof.
Urie makes the bogus government inspector into a jaunty, stylish rascal – a fellow with worldly charm who is able to persuade the fawners and the thieves that he must be the inspector from Moscow. Urie gives the comic performance of his career. McGrath has the authority of the Mayor and the slickness that makes this particular politician the chief rogue of the city. Testa is overly high-hat, and a hoot, as his wife, and Monahon behaves with giddy sweetness as the mayor’s naive daughter.
The production is impeccable on all fronts: acting, adaptation, direction, with inspired scenery by Alexis Distler, elaborate costumer design by Tilly Grimes, and fine lighting design by Megan Lang and Peter West.
The Government Inspector is a winner for Gogol and the Red Bull Theater. It’s on through August 20 at New World Stages on West 51st Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It’s something not to miss.