By: Iris Wiener
There is farce, and then there is the humorous play that tries too hard to be a farce. Unfortunately, The Government Inspector is mostly the latter. Although the piece is filled with many one-liners that land abundantly well, as a whole, Inspector is lacking in depth and consistency. Characters launch into asides at awkward moments, breaking up the already disjointed plot construction. None of the characters have very strong merits or backstories, making it difficult to root for or against them. On the other hand, the actors themselves are vibrant and on top of their game; audiences will not only root for them, but eat them up as well.
In the New York premiere of acclaimed playwright Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s satire of bad behavior in the Russian provinces, the action takes place in an odd, small bucolic town in 19th-century Russia. The mayor (Michael McGrath) is told to expect a visit from an inspector, who means to make sure the town is on the up-and-up. He colludes with the school principal (David Manis), the town judge (Tom Alan Robbins) and the hospital director (Stephen DeRosa) to hide the seedy underbelly and crumbling affairs of their authority until such inspector leaves. The team is willing to bribe, cheat and confound to make their municipality believably in check.
When this team of wayward misfits is told that a young man is staying at the local inn, they conclude that this must be the inspector. However, the conceited Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie) is a broke, mindless loser. Before finally fleeing the corrupt town at the urging of his servant (Arnie Burton), he takes bribes, wards of the unwanted advances of the mayor’s wife, Anna (Mary Testa), and entertains the romantic advances of the mayor’s daughter (Talene Monahan). Oh, and he gets drunk. Very drunk. His sloshed antics comprise a ten-plus minute scene that demonstrates Urie’s gifted physical comedic nature, but not much else in the guise of moving the plot forward.
The actors in Inspector spit the fast language with eloquent humor and bombastic verve. McGrath is impeccable in a role that doesn’t always give him enough to do. However, when he lobs insults at Testa (who is dressed like something Little Bo-Peep threw up), he is at his finest. “Why are you dressed like a lamp in a whorehouse?” he asks the boisterous flirt. Urie’s ability to make his audience love him even when his character is incredibly flawed (early seasons of Ugly Betty, anyone?) is once again evidenced by his timing and grandiosity with Ivan’s humorous histrionics. Though his character highjacks the show towards the end of the first act, Urie comes out on top…er, on the top of the bottom, as he literally plunges from the top floor of the set to the lower level, hanging on for dear life. Another stand-out from the production is Arnie Burton, who brings his uncanny brilliance to Ivan’s servant with the brutish delivery of barbs such as “It’s like talking to meat.” Burton is also delightful when he plays a snooping postmaster, a role more integral than it might at once seem.
Red Bull Theater Artistic Director Jesse Berger’s direction is clearly the misstep in this problematic piece. Asides from the characters are clumsy and often feel unnecessary. The small set does not allow much room for a large cast, who often find themselves situated in a straight line, watching and listening to the action (a la a high school production). Alexis Distler’s scenic design is unique, if not always the most appropriate. Her one-dimensional split level stage allows for three individual rooms and no set changes. Audiences peer in as though they are watching dolls in a doll’s house butt heads with one another, a clever choice as to the way in which the audience is supposed to appreciate the slapstick-ish tricks in the show. Early on the characters speak of rooms in their hospitals that are so small, beds cannot be fit inside. A nod to that claustrophobic feeling can be felt in a clever wink that is the set itself. However, even though there are moments of stupendous humor in the large casts’ running through the top floor (see an epically funny chase scene), it is ultimately too squashed for an ensemble so large. Tilly Grimes’s costumes are artful and funny (see the principal’s mortarboard), especially when considering Anna’s ostentatious wear.
In Inspector’s satisfying finale, the big bunch of loons realize that they will all be taken as fools, and they’re elated about it; after all, they’ll be in the newspaper. This sentiment screams 2017, and redefines the meaning of the entire piece- a neat trick, turning the play on its head in a timely way. “Centuries from now, people will still be laughing at us,” says the mayor. And just as with the play itself, those laughs won’t always be for the right reasons.
The Government Inspector **1/2
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street (between 7th & 8th)
Tickets (646 223-3010 ext.8
May 16-June 24, 2017
Photos: Carol Rosegg
Follow Iris on Twitter at @Iris_Wiener [https://twitter.com/Iris_Wiener] or visit her at IrisWiener.com.