Fans of the Marx Brothers and Keystone Kops, rejoice, for the inspired lunacy and theatrics in Nikolai Gogol’s classic comedy, The Government Inspector. The Red Bull Theater’s production, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, is nonstop laughter provided by a seasoned group of comedic actors. The show is playing at New World Stages Off-Broadway at 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.
The premise of the 1836 Russian play is simple. The corrupt mayor of a small-town, along with the equally corrupt and morally bankrupt school principal, judge, hospital director, and others panic when word filters in that a government inspector is in the vicinity to check the goings on in town. They mistakenly believe a young, self-absorbed, womanizing, and carousing bon vivant from St. Petersburg, staying at the local inn, is the man. Immediately, a delegation of the unscrupulous bureaucrats and businessmen seek him out, lavishing praise and money upon him in the hope of keeping him quiet. When the mayor invites him to stay at his palatial home he cheerfully accepts. The outcome is semi-controlled inanity and a denouncement that surprises all.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation is brisk and full of hilarity. In the program booklet, he states he did not update the essence of the script because the portrayals are so recognizable, even in today’s topsy turvey world. By stretching the scheming and shenanigans to absurd levels he brings out the stupidity of the characters. The byproduct is a sprightly hoopla, which is consistently frisky and buoyant.
The cast is a treasure trove of top-notch funnymen and women. I could spend much of this review rhapsodizing about each cast member, but let me, instead, highlight just a few. Michael Urie is glorious as the egotistical swaggerer, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov. He is so good as a pompous ass taking advantage of the imbecilic officials. The actor is also a superb physical comedian, which adds a layer of looniness to his performance. Michael McGrath smartly plays it straight as Mayor Antonovich, a man so full of greed and hubris. The result magnifies his shallowness and idiocy. Arnie Burton, doubling as Hlestakov’s sarcastic, uppity servant Osip and the buffoonish Postmaster, is outrageously funny. He adds an extra zing to the production whenever he is on stage. Mary Testa as Anna Andreyevna, the Mayor’s wife, is cheeky, loud-mouthed and brings a tactless brashness to her role.
Director Jesse Berger smartly lets the skirmishes and conflicts of the banal, crooked town administrators dictate the sweep of the production. He doesn’t go looking for laughs unnecessarily, but let’s the action, humor and absurdity come out naturally. Berger skillfully maneuvers the large cast with deft and precision, integrating physical comedy into the uproariousness of the script.
The two-tiered set by Alexis Distler divides the performing space into three distinct areas. The two lower level sections, cramped and utilitarian, amplify the comedic action as the group of actors uneasily maneuver about the rooms. The single upper level allows for broader clowning and farcical elements. Tilly Grimes’ Costume Design can be whimsical, seemingly plucked from a Marx Brothers release as well as grandly ceremonious. Greg Pliska’s Sound Design and original music add an element of audio lunacy to the production.
The Government Inspector, highly entertaining and full of laughs by an outstanding, riotous cast.