12 June 2017

'The Government Inspector'

Mistaken identity’s been around as a plot focus for a long time--certainly since Oedipus mistook his father for a highway robber and his mother for a grieving widow.  Of course, that boo-boo ended in tragedy—and the fall of the entire House of Thebes.  Sometime later, writers started using the gag for comedy rather than tragedy and we ended up with stories like The Comedy of Errors (two cases of mistaken ID’s).  Often Shakespeare liked to use disguises to help set up the mis-recognitions, specially dressing gals up as guys—which was especially weird in Elizabethan times since the girls were played by boys in drag to begin with, so you ended up with a dude in drag pretending to be a chick in trou.  Talk about your identity crisis!  (Usually in those plays—Twelfth Night, As You Like It—the girl-dressed-as-a-boy falls in love with some guy and he starts having feelings for him/her and before Mike Pence can show up, the secret identity is revealed.  Never mind that it’s two guys to begin with—which was humongously frowned-upon in the 16th and 17th centuries.) 

Anyway, we’re still using that gag today.  Watch any sitcom long enough and you’ll catch an episode that centers on a mistaken ID.  I particularly remember an episode of the Britcom Fawlty Towers in which hotelier Basil Fawlty, played memorably by John Cleese, finds out that a hotel inspector is coming incognito and, of course, Basil picks the wrong man to fawn all over, while neglecting and insulting the actual reviewer at every turn.  Of course, as with nearly anything with John Cleese, it was hilarity elevated—or sunk—to the max. 

Hey, wait!  I know that one.  Isn’t that ripped off from The Government Inspector?  Sure it is—Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 farce, sometimes also called The Inspector General.  It’s practically the same story, reset some 150 years later and moved from a small town in the Russian provinces to a small hotel in the English countryside—but the same exact premise.  Oh, as Gogol might have said (if he’d lived to be 166—and got a TV that received BBC in Russian):  Znayu ya vashego brata!!  “I’ve got your number, John Cleese!” 

Well, as someone or other said, There’s nothing new under the sun.  Someone else also observed that there are only so many plots and we just keep recycling them with little tweaks.  So Cleese and his writing partner, Connie Booth (who also played the chambermaid, Polly) based “The Hotel Inspectors” (1975) on The Government Inspector, Gogol’s farce about an über-corrupt mayor in a provincial backwater who learns that an official from Saint Petersburg is on his way incognito to suss out dishonesty and incompetence.  The local innkeeper figures it must be one of his guests who arrived unannounced from the capital and has been taking notes on the diners in the inn.  So, for the rest of the play’s two hours and 20 minutes, Mayor Anton Antonovich and his equally venal family members, the other town officials, and the county’s landowners all try to bribe, cajole, and seduce the stranger, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, so he’ll overlook the mess the town around him is in. 

The problem is, of course, that Hlestakov (spelled Khlestakov in some other translations), just about as doltish as the locals, not only isn’t the inspector from Saint Petersburg, he’s a total nobody, a minor clerk in a meaningless ministry who’s so broke he can’t even buy his girl a nickel coke.  (Oops!  Sorry.  That’s Most Happy Fella, another plot that revolves around mistaken identity!  My bad.)  I mean, pay his inn bill and he’s just about to shoot himself—if he can just get himself to look good doing it—when the Mayor and his entourage burst into his room and start throwing money at him.  Hlestakov has no idea why everyone wants to give him money—but he’s more than happy to accept that and more.  You see, young Hlestakov is something of a con man his own self.  (One source on Russian lit describes the character as “the liar, the shallow imposter, the vulgar symbol of universal emptiness”—sound like anyone you know?  But the book was published when Donald Trump was about 12, so he couldn’t have been the author’s template!)  He’s also not above taking advantage of the situation when both the Mayor’s wife, Anna Andreyevna, and his daughter, Marya Antonovna, throw themselves at him and arrange assignations with him.  Hlestakov’s been impressing everyone with his erudition and class—when everyone else is a low-bow moron, it’s easy to be the smartest in the room—and before anyone can find out who he really is, he absconds—in the Mayor’s cherished troika, mind you—for his father’s hut in a nearby hamlet where he’d been heading when he ran out of money.

Of course, the real government inspector reveals himself in the end.  I won’t say who it is and spoil that surprise in case prospective theatergoers don’t twig to it before the dénouement (or haven’t read the play beforehand), but I will say that the people of Gogol’s town in the boondocks all get what they deserve and are left with broken dreams of the glory and wealth that Hlestakov—who gets clean away, by the way—promised them.  As the town officials and the Mayor's family stand stunned, the Mayor predicts that “centuries from now they’ll still be laughing at us.”   In Gogol’s comic indictment of tsarist bureaucracy and officialdom, there’s not a single admirable person, no one who’s side we can take, no one we can root for—and yet, as if to prove Gogol, adapter Jeffrey Hatcher, and Mayor correct, the audience at the Duke guffawed throughout the entire play nonetheless. 

If any of you knows The Government Inspector (or The Inspector General) and my description of the play above varies from what you’re familiar with, that’s because the production on which I based my synopsis is an adaptation by playwright Hatcher (Never Gonna Dance, 2003-04, book; A Picasso, 2005; Scotland Road, 1998; Three Viewings, 1995) as staged by the Red Bull Theater at the Duke on 42nd Street.  Hatcher wrote the treatment, based on Gogol’s original, Revizor, for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in 2008; artistic director Joe Dowling directed the première.  (Subsequent productions were mounted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater in 2009; Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in 2012, and by the Furious Theatre Company, resident company at the Pasadena Playhouse in Southern California, also in 2012.  It’s also popular with college and university theaters.)  Hatcher’s text was published in an acting edition by the Dramatists Play Service in 2009.

Gogol (1809-52) began writing Revizor (the Russian word for ‘inspector’) in 1835.  He’d apparently begun an earlier play on tsarist bureaucracy in 1832 but abandoned it in anticipation of official censorship.  He wrote to Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the great Russian poet who was a sort of mentor to the younger writer, asking for an idea, “an authentically Russian anecdote” which he could turn into a stage comedy.  Pushkin sent him a description of a incident that had actually happened to him in 1833 in which the poet himself had been mistaken for a government inspector.  The Government Inspector was published in 1836 (and revised in 1842 for a later edition); the Russian press protested loudly and Tsar Nicholas I (reigned 1825-55) had to step in to get the play staged at Saint Petersburg’s Aleksandinsky Imperial Theater (April 1836); it was staged in Moscow at the Maly Theater in May 1836.  The petty bureaucrats and corrupt politicians he lampooned so assailed the playwright, he eventually went into self-exile, remaining outside Russia for 12 years. 

The play’s been revived many times around the world in many translations and adaptations.  Productions were mounted on Broadway in 1923, 1930 (staged by Jed Harris with Dorothy Gish as Marya Antonovna), 1935 (as Revisor, performed in Russian by the Moscow Art Players), 1978 (directed by Liviu Ciulei with Theodore Bikel as the Mayor), 1993-94 (from Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, with Randall as Khlestakov and Lainie Kazan as Anna, the Mayor’s wife).  The play has been adapted for film many times in various languages; the only English-language film is a 1949 musical adaptation, entitled The Inspector General, directed by Henry Koster starring Danny Kaye for Warner Bros., a severely bowdlerized version that is reset in Napoleonic France.  In 1958, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a television adaptation of the play (available on video).  The BBC broadcast a series based on the play in 1976.

The first recorded Off-Broadway staging is the current Red Bull production, which began previews at the Duke on 14 May and opened to the press on 1 June; the revival is scheduled to close on 24 June.  Diana, my frequent theater companion, met me at the theater in the New 42nd Street Studios west of Broadway for the 7:30 performance on Tuesday, 30 May, the production’s penultimate preview.

Red Bull, which apparently does only one full production a season (they do readings and other programs, such as the Short New Play Festival), seems to have something of a following, though I know nothing about them (I’d heard its name here and there, but that’s all).  The company, which one reviewer characterized as a “sort of alternative classical theater company” which “has made a niche out of producing rarely-seen historical plays that similar companies won’t dare touch,” was founded in 2003, taking its name from one of the leading theaters in Elizabethan London. The original Red Bull Theatre, built in 1604, continued to present illegal performances, especially drolls (short farcical sketches incorporating songs, dances, physical comedy, and witty language), after 1642 when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell closed all the theaters.  (The theater was raided several times during the Puritan interregnum for performing plays and actors were arrested for working there.)  According to the modern troupe, the original Red Bull was the first theater in London to reopen after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  The Red Bull Theatre burned down in 1666, one of the last theaters to fall during the Great Fire of London.

“Embracing this rejuvenating spirit,” the current company states as its mission, “the Red Bull Theater aims to be in the vanguard of new classical theater for the 21st century, creating a home for plays of heightened language and epic expression in evocative performances.”  The company focuses on exploring and creating “heightened language plays.”  (Berger apparently has a fondness for the grim and gory dramas of the Jacobean period—decidedly not among my own favorites.)  Since it débuted with William Shakespeare’s Pericles (2003), the Red Bull, which is a peripatetic theater without a permanent home, has produced such classic plays as The Revenger’s Tragedy (2005-06); Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second (2007); Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women (2008), and The Witch of Edmonton by John Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley (2011), along with modern language plays such as Jean Genet’s The Maids (2012), Loot by Joe Orton (2014), and Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep (2014).  According to its own publicity statements, Red Bull has received awards and nominations from the Lucille Lortel Foundation, Drama Desk, Drama League, Off-Broadway Alliance, and the Joe A. Calloway (Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation) and OBIE committees.

Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, born in the Ukraine on April Fool’s Day, was a descendant of Cossacks.  (His 1835 novel, Taras Bulba, is a heroic tale of a 16th-century Cossack chieftain, filmed in 1962 with Yul Brynner in the title role and Tony Curtis as one of his sons.)  His father, Vasily Gogol-Yanovsky, a member of the so-called petty gentry (who had the privileges and status of nobility but didn’t own serfs), was an unpublished Ukrainian-language poet and playwright and, as a child, Gogol helped stage plays in Ukrainian in his uncle’s home theater.  Unpopular with his classmates at the Prince Bezborodko Gymnasium of Higher Learning in the city of Nezhin (now Nizhyn Gogol State University), they nicknamed him the “mysterious dwarf” because of his physical and social peculiarities.  He was secretive, had a tart tongue and a wicked talent for mimicry, and apparently took delight in being different from his fellows—but the gymnasium started the student on his road to writing.  Upon leaving school in 1828, Gogol took a low-level, low-paying clerkship in the tsarist bureaucracy in Saint Petersburg (much like his character Hlestakov in The Government Inspector).  The would-be littérateur brought with him to the capital a romantic poem (Pushkin’s forte) he’d written, a long narrative of a rural German life called Hans Küchelgarten (the name means “Johnny Chickenyard”), which he self-published under the pseudonym V. Alov.  It was roundly derided by critics and editors, and the young poet bought up and burned all the copies of the magazines in which he’d paid to publish the piece.  

After failing at his first post, Gogol took a second government job at which he also failed.  Then he took up teaching at a girl’s boarding school in 1831, the same year he published the first volume of collected stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, based on Ukrainian folk stories; volume two came out the next year, firmly establishing the young author as a Slavophile writer.  The collection became an immediate success, bringing the young author to Pushkin’s attention.  This success made him welcome among Russia’s literati.  In 1834, Gogol took up his second teaching position,  Professor of Medieval History at Saint Petersburg University, a post for which he had no qualifications and quickly proved himself no better at higher learning than he’d been at government work; the writer lasted only one year.  (He satirized himself in one of his own stories!)  That year, however, Gogol put out two more books: Mirgorod, more short stories, and Arabesques, a collection of essays.  The works the writer published between 1832 and 1836 moved Russia’s literary critics to consider him a Russian rather than Ukrainian writer. 

During this period, Gogol also published two plays, Marriage and The Government Inspector, launching the theatrical aspect of his writing career.  As I’ve already noted, The Government Inspector was taken up by Tsar Nicholas I, who requested the first production in 1836.  The audience was stunned, and the resultant controversy, which completely surprised the 27-year-old Gogol, divided Russian society into Government Inspector revilers and defenders.  Ultimately, the response of the government bureaucrats—“Everybody is against me,” he complained—drove the author to leave Russia and he spent the next 12 years traveling in central and western Europe.  (Of a frail constitution, Gogol suffered from severe hypochondria, among other complexes, both real and imagined.)  Upon Pushkin’s death in 1837, however, Gogol was accorded the great poet’s status as the leading Russian writer of the day.  His novel Dead Souls, considered his masterwork, and the first edition of his collected works were both published in 1842, and six years later, the writer returned to Russia, settling in Moscow.  Dead Souls, intended to be the start of a larger, three-volume project, sealed Gogol’s reputation as the great satirist of Tsarist Russia.

In 1852, Gogol died at age 42, the result in large part of extreme asceticism under the guidance of a spiritual “elder” (known as a “starets,” literally an ‘old man’).  The writer became deeply depressed and began burning some of his manuscripts, including the second part of Dead Souls.  Taking to his bed, Gogol refused to eat and died in great discomfort.  His remains are buried in Moscow.

It’s remarkable that the total farce that is The Government Inspector came from the same pen as Dead Souls, a morbid, grim but naturalistic satire.  (Gogol wrote the 1842 novel  Dead Souls; the famous stage production directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky for the Moscow Art Theater in 1932 was an adaptation by Mikhail Bulgakov.  The ‘souls’ in the title is the word Russians used to refer to serfs, not considered fully ‘persons,’ and Chichikov, the novel’s main character, “buys” deceased souls to show on paper that he owns hundreds of serfs to increase his standing in the community.)  The adaptation by Hatcher, which runs two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission (Gogol’s original is a five-act play), is contemporary without updating the action or the references (though there are some double entendres that suggest current events and figures)—however, Hatcher does play loose with the language and sexual innuendos that I doubt would have passed the censors in 1836 Russia.  

Red Bull’s Government Inspector is pretty good and well handled.  Farce isn’t easy, but the company does all right.  Diana left at intermission, but I don’t know if she didn’t like it, or was just anxious about her departure for Chicago the next morning.  (She kept comparing the production to Saturday Night Live, but I don’t know if she meant that’s good or bad.  I went off SNL years ago, but I have no idea how she feels about the show.)

The rest of the audience at the Duke was extremely receptive to all the humor, verbal and physical.  They behaved almost like a claque!  Still, I have to say that the cast is pretty adept at the style—occasionally, they seem to be trying a little too hard—and the leads, Tony-winner Michael McGrath (for Nice Work if You Can Get It, 2012, Best Featured Actor in a Musical) as the  Mayor and, especially, Michael Urie as Hlestakov, are excellent.  Urie, who looks like he should be playing young leading men, is particularly adept at the physical comedy; he does a marvelous drunk scene at the end of act one.  Not long ago, I complained about a comedy performances that the actors played the comedy too lightly when I thought they’d be funnier if they approached their characters as if they were in earnest.  The Government Inspector works that way a little, too, and director Berger keeps his company in check enough that they all seem to be taking their lives, their circumstances, and themselves seriously.  We know they’re fools and buffoons; they don’t.  If the actors play the buffoons as buffoons, making faces and silly gestures like clowns . . . well, you get Danny Kaye’s film version.

The Government Inspector is another in a string of ensemble shows I’ve seen this season—have I unearthed a pattern?—and each of the performers has at least one terrific turn in a scene with no more than one or two other characters.  (Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl as the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of  landowners, Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, for example, are never seen out of each other’s company—the two come off as a poor man’s Harpo and Chico without the horn, the accent, and the wiles—so their scenes with the Mayor or Hlestakov always include at least three actors.  Of course, that’s a big part of the gag, and Gogol set it up that way—which is why their names rhyme; both their given names are Pyotr Ivanovich.  Another part of the joke is that, although they’re not related, they even look alike—and Garbayo and Mehl, with their identical facial hair, could pass for brothers on stage.)  When the company is all together on the rather narrow playing area—the cast numbers 14 actors playing 24 characters—they often convey the impression of disorganized chaos; other times, they perform what in the army we used to call a group grope.  Seven company members play 17 parts and they make them astonishingly distinct—some of which is from the excellent work of costume designer Tilly Grimes and hair and wig designer Dave Bova.  Especially successful in this deception are Arnie Burton, who plays Osip, Hlestakov’s servant, as a sullen, slovenly, malcontented serf and the Postmaster as an affectedly loose-lipped and habitual snoop; and Mary Lou Rosato (taking the honors for playing four characters), whose Grusha, the Mayor’s family’s maid is a more kempt female version of Osip, and the Waitress at the inn which she plays on her knees as if she were a very short woman.  (There’s even a joke that capitalizes on her stature.)  

(One silly sidelight:  Back in 2014, I saw a Classic Stage Company production of David Ives’s adaptation of a French classic comedy, The Heir Apparent—see my report on 25 April 2014—in which David Pittu also played a character on his knees.  I wondered if  Rosato and Pittu know each other or if Rosato saw Pittu’s performance.  Some coincidences are just too perfect to overlook!)

There’s one odd staging choice—which may have been unavoidable.  Alexis Distler’s serviceable set (lit brightly by Megan Lang and Peter West) is on two levels and on the lower level is the Mayor’s office on stage left and Hlestakov’s room at the local inn, stage right.  A curtain covers one while the other’s in use.  Above is the interior of the Mayor’s house where all the rest of the action occurs after scenes one and two of act one.  So for two-thirds of the play, we’re looking at the top level of the set, with a closed red curtain below.  The seats are pretty steeply raked, so the upper stage is close to eye-level of row D, where Diana and I sat, so it wasn’t a hardship—but it was kind of odd.  I wonder if reversing the sets would have been any better.  Is it easier to ignore a closed-off upper stage than a closed-off lower one?

As I reported, I don’t know if Diana didn’t like the play—when she left, she said, “I can pretty well tell what’s going to develop,” which isn’t necessary an apt way to approach a farce.  Seeing how the playwright and the director and actors handle the developments is what you miss.  In a farce, it’s not just the plot but the antics and how they’re executed that we’re supposed to judge, no?  Diana, for instance, witnessed the impromptu party at the Mayor’s house at the end of act one, which, in addition to Urie’s inspired drunk scene—he gets increasingly inebriated and out of control until he literally collapses on the floor and ends up hanging off the edge of the upper stage with a look on his face that’s reminiscent of that ubiquitous photo of a cat hanging from a line—but she missed the scene at the opening of the second act in which Hlestakov is importuned by both the Mayor’s wife, oversexed and convinced of her attractiveness, and his daughter, like a sullen and  petulant teenager, in the same room at the same time or the scene that follows where all the town officials hide in the same closet and then come out one by one (or, in Bob- and Dobchinsky’s case, two at a time) to offer the young imposter bribes.  The audience, as Diana remarked somewhat astonished, ate this up (a standing O, of course)—but I enjoyed it, too.  Not as uproariously as the others seemed to, but more than well enough.  (I have never had any objection to plays that are just fun—though, of course, The Government Inspector is a commentary on the tsarist bureaucracy—well, Russian, since that country’s had inept and corrupt officials running rampant in every political regime, including the present one.)  

Show-Score rated The Government Inspector’s critical reception an 82 off of a sampling of 30 reviews.  The breakdown was  95% positive, 4% mixed, and 3% negative notices, with the high score being one 95 (ZEALnyc), with six 90’s (including the New York Times); the lowest-rated review was a single 40 (Front Row Center), the only negative notice.  My survey will include 15 reviews.

In one of Show-Score’s 90-rated reviews, Diana Barth remarked in the Epoch Times that when the curtain falls on Red Bull’s The Government Inspector, “We have been greatly entertained.  But mightn’t we also be a bit uncomfortable?”  She asked of the performance: “Is it possibly a mirror of ourselves?  And of our governing officials?”  Barth dubbed the production “a hilarious comedy, beautifully cast and acted” with a “spiffy two-level set” and “excellent costumes.”  The ET reviewer also had high praise for Urie (particularly the drunk scene, “the highpoint of the production”) and compliments for Mary Testa’s Mayor’s wife and Talene Monahon’s daughter.  In am New York, Matt Windman described Hatcher’s adaptation as “freewheeling” and Berger’s staging as “big, brash and buoyant.”  It is “a high-energy, fast-paced production with gleefully over-the-top performances and door-slamming slapstick comedy,” Windman affirmed. 

“Few plays, though, have taken [mistaken identity] to the mad heights occupied by Nikolai Gogol’s ‘The Government Inspector,’” observed Ben Brantley in a pre-opening blurb in the New York Times, adding that the play “infuses scathing satire with giddy surrealism.”  In his regular review (rated 90 on Show-Score) a few days later, Brantley called the play a “rollicking 19th-century satire of bad behavior in the Russian provinces” being given a “buoyant production” that “generates the kind of collective enthusiasm in its audience that you associate with home-team football games.”  He reported, “The pleasures afforded by this breakneck show—. . . featuring a virtuosic cast led by a path-clearing cyclone of silliness called Michael Urie—are as old as the days when cave dwellers discovered that human stupidity was really kind of funny, as well as potentially tragic. ”  The Timesman asserted that from the “freewheeling but spiritually faithful adaptation” by playwright Hatcher, you “might think that [its] worldview is a little too close to real life these days.”  In that party scene at the end of the first act, Brantley noted that the celebrants are all drinking the local wine (fermented in a spittoon!) that Hlestakov describes as “[v]iscous and yet so bubbly,” which “isn’t a bad description for this show as a whole,” the review-writer added.  He also acknowledged that Urie’s drunk show is “one of the most exquisitely controlled displays of uncontrolled drunkenness I’ve ever witnessed.”  Part of the responsibility for this is Berger’s direction, of which Brantley wrote:

But Mr. Berger. . . has staged his “Government Inspector” with a subversive straightforwardness.  While there’s plenty of hilarious Marx Brothers-style anarchy here, all the performances are dead serious in their ridiculousness, capturing the big, self-preserving egos beneath the small-town madness.

“And what a team Mr. Berger has assembled to execute that mission,” the Times review-writer exclaimed.  In his other piece, Brantley described them as “a doozy of a cast, which includes such masters of mayhem as” Burton, DeRosa, McGrath, Testa, and Monahon.  (He admitted he “felt remiss in not mentioning every cast member.”)  Brantley made special mention of Urie as the “lamest of lamebrains,” declaring, “His Ivan is [a] distinctive comic creation, a dimwitted narcissist who nonetheless makes thinking on his feet a self-contained slapstick ballet.”   He further proclaimed, “Mr. Urie establishes himself as a bona fide leading man, in the tradition of great physical comedy performers like Kevin Kline.” 

In the “Goings On About Town” column of the New Yorker, the reviewer reported that Hatcher “retains the original framework” of Gogol’s original 1836 play, “but gives the jokes a zingy modern spin.”  Dubbing the Red Bull production “raucous,” the unnamed review-writer observed that director Berger “freely mixes in bits from the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, and Woody Allen.”  The notice had top praise for actors Urie (“charming as hell”), Burton (“superlative double duty”), McGrath (“bluffs and blusters to the hilt”), and Testa (“earns big laughs just by changing the pitch of her voice”).  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York warned, “A play that depicts a politician as a greedy, vindictive, incompetent boob desperate to ingratiate himself to the leader of Russia . . . may no longer sound like comedy”; however, he continued that “humor is doled out generously in” the Government Inspector revival as “zippily adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.”  The man from TONY described Distler’s set as evoking “a cartoon in the Sunday funny papers” and reported that the “talented cast of 14 commits hard to fill out its panels.”  He concluded, “Although the play’s lampoon of corruption is wide-ranging, it is tempered by the jovial spirit of farce, which feels like a mercy.  There’s a lot to be said for shouting, but sometimes you just need to laugh.”

In the low-scoring review (40) on Front Row Center,  Tulis McCall (who posted the same notice on New York Theatre Guide) proclaimed, “There are two delicious reasons to see Red Bull’s The Government Inspector”: Michael Urie and Arnie Burton.  She gushed over Urie’s act-one performance—“He is quick.  He is nimble.  And if there had been a candlestick he would have jumped over it”—but then backed off.  “Urie does appear in the second act, but because his scenes depend on the actors with whom he is partnered, the steam runs out quickly,” McCall lamented.  “No one, with the occasional exception of Mary Testa, who knows from timing, seems to have a clue what is happening.”  She blamed director Berger for a production that “feels flat and heavy” and, except for Urie and Burton, a cast that “seems to be playing in what we thin[k] of as the broad style of 19th century melodramas.”  She asserted, “There is no nuance, no inner life, no spark.”  Hatcher’s “text as written is either a poor translation or the original was as dull as a box of rocks.”  Like me, though, the FRC reviewer found, “The two-storied set is awkward to look at, and confines everyone to the equivalent of a long hallway.”  She returned to Urie and Burton, however, for additional and abundant praise.  On CurtainUp, Elyse Sommer declared that the Red Bull revival of The Government Inspector “is loaded with laughs; but, like all good comedies, even those going way over the top, it's underpinned by all too real relevancy.”  Hatcher’s script is “smartly modernized and streamlined” and Berger’s production “land[s] every joke and double entendre.”  In direct contrast to her colleague at FRC, Sommer raved, “What a cast!  What a clever set!  What witty plot and humor supporting costumes!”  Though she did find the comedy “perhaps a tad too TV-sitcomish,” the CU reviewer felt that “for all the vaudevillian shtick, the terrific actors manage to keep their characters’ excesses within the realm of relatable reality.” 

TheaterMania’s Zachary Stewart, calling The Government Inspector “uproarious” and Hatcher’s adaptation “irreverent and highly watchable,” affirmed that the Red Bull company “captures Gogol’s mischievous frivolity.”  Stewart heaped deserved praise on the whole cast whose “physical performances stand out,” and reported that director Berger “creates [an] atmosphere of lunacy through a surprisingly compelling mixture of slapstick comedy and operatic design” for his “zippy” production.  On Broadway World, Michael Dale labeled Gogol’s play a “rip-roaring classic” and Berger’s revival “a gloriously silly mounting.”  Hatcher’s adaptation is “punchline-laden,” but Berger “loads up the evening with terrific sight gags and wacky antics performed by a top shelf cast.” 

“Hilarity reigns in this madcap revival of” The Government Inspector, wrote Darryl Reilly on TheaterScene.net; “It’s a Mel Brooks-style presentation with coarseness, slapstick, pratfalls and gags galore.”  Hatcher’s adaptation is “frothy” and “jocularly crammed with one-liners, zingers, anachronisms and double entendres” and Berger’s staging is “fast-paced” and “an exuberant amalgam of physical and verbal virtuosity combined with visual flair.”  Singling out all the principals for special praise, Reilly labeled the ensemble “dynamic,” adding that they “all excel with their loony turns.”  The review-writer for TheaterScene.net concluded, “This highly entertaining Red Bull Theater production is a wonderful opportunity to experience the play’s timeless splendor.”  Joel Benjamin characterized the Red Bull revival of the play on Theater Pizzazz as “a pleasantly chaotic production” given an “outrageously farcical staging.”  With “a cast of gung-ho actors who have no fear of being over-the-top silly,” each of whom he compliments, Benjamin found that “Berger might have pulled in some of the high spirited performances.”  Nonetheless, the TP reviewer concluded that “the overall mood was consistent and the pacing remarkable.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller asserted that Gogol’s comedy “has been given the full ‘Marxist’ treatment by Red Bull Theater” and Berger—but he assured us he meant Groucho, Harpo, and Chico (what, no Gummo and Zeppo?), “whose style of zany buffoonery is echoed in the show from start to end.”  Miller pointed out that “everything here is thoroughly and unabashedly soaked in slapstick, farce, and low comedy.”  Having set up the premise, Berger’s Government Inspector “quickly descends (or ascends) into full-blown madness and mayhem.”  The TB review-writer summed up with: “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” and ended by recommending, “If you are in the mood for good, silly fun, The Government Inspector will more than fill the bill.”  Ron Cohen of TheaterScene.com (not to be confused with TheaterScene.net, above) called the Red Bull revival of The Government Inspector “a rollicking good time” and labeled the production an “exuberant mounting” of the play.  Hatcher’s “sprightly” adaptation “keeps things in 19th Century Russia, but gives the dialogue a bright contemporary spin” and director Berger “demonstrates a grand flair for comedy in his appropriate anything-for-a-laugh staging” with a cast of “superlative farceurs.”  Cohen singled out several of the principal actors for individual praise, especially Urie and McGrath, but affirmed, “Just about everybody contributes to the hilarity.”  The review-writer observed that “the bits come so thick and fast, you don’t have time to ponder the misfires,” but he had this advice to theatergoers: “Grin and bear them.” 

The Huffington Post published two notices for The Government Inspector; the first one is from Steven Suskin, who quipped:

And now we have graft, greed, bribery, cupidity and all-round corruption.  No, not in our local city hall; nor the halls of various congresses and executive branches, neither.  At least not specifically.  The vile misdeeds are purported to take place in Russia, although our present-day leader’s buddy-in-chief needn’t take offence or send out “fake” reviews from fake drama critics. 

That’s, of course, because it’s all in the 19th-century farce, The Government Inspector.  “Gogol’s satire remains razor-sharp . . .,” reported Suskin, “and Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation . . . contemporizes the humor while keeping the action in Gogol’s dusty old provincial town.”  The Red Bull production is “resplendent” and the actors “[a]ll feast on the festivities, and the pleasure is ours.”  Suskin lauded the entire cast and reported that Berger “does a thoroughly assured job, wrangling his clowns and keeping the laughter percolating.”  He labeled Hatcher’s adaptation “canny” and concluded, “All in all, the Red Bull Inspector General [sic] is bright, funny and as refreshing as a bowl of cold summer borscht crowned by two dollops of sour cream.”  (A note to Suskin, however: Russian borscht is a heavy soup of meat and vegetables, served hot as a whole meal.  That cold soup, presumably the one made from beets—it’s, ummm, Polish!) 

In HP’s second review, Michael Giltz, after giving a short disquisition on why stakes are high in comedy, called Berger’s The Government Inspector an “amiable, too-soft revival” that “remains this side of great, despite some strong lead actors and a classic text.”  Giltz felt that “an essential tension, the desperation that drives the best comedy is lacking.”  The problem?  “Quite simply, the cast is having too much fun.”  According to this HP writer, “It means we have fun too, but not as much as we’d have if every member of the cast feared for their life.”  Essentially Giltz asserted that everything comes too easily for all the characters in the play, and that while “a sense of anarchy builds, . . .  the sense of characters under siege does not.”  In the end, when the reveal happens, the “comedic feeling of ‘My God, their every sin has been witnessed’—or even ‘uh-oh’—does not arise.”  He applauded the principal actors, but added that “everyone else . . . fades into the background.”  (Giltz split over Burton—“good” as Osip, “bad” as the “tired gay cliche of a” Postmaster.)  He blamed Berger for “the too-friendly atmosphere,” though he liked the “tech elements”—except the two-tiered set because the lower level was abandoned and unused for so much of the play.  (The reviewer wanted to see both levels in use at the same time at some point.)  “Never let them see you sweat,” admonished Giltz, is bad advice for comedy—and he asserted, “Unfortunately, the cast of The Government Inspector remain as cool as cucumbers.”  (Though several reviewers mention the Fawlty Towers episode about which I wrote a bit at the beginning of this report, Giltz was the only one I read who actually drew a comparison between that TV episode and this production of The Government Inspector—and Red Bull’s Government Inspector came out the worse!)

1 comment:

  1. Red Bull's 'Government Inspector' has been extended until 28 August. It will transfer to New World Stages at 340 W 50th St. as of today.