NEW YORK — The funniest play to hit New York this year is Nikolai Gogol’s lampooning classic satire of 19th-century Russian provincial life, “The Government Inspector.”
Brilliantly adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher, faultlessly staged by Jesse Berger and flawlessly acted by a talented ensemble, it depicts the pettiness and corruption of a provisional government many years ago in Russia that still seems relevant around the world today.
The play can be performed as a savage satire or public assault on venal politicians. Or, more broadly, it can be a mindless comedy romp, which is the route Mr. Berger takes.This new production of "The Government Inspector” is dazzlingly amusing. It ignites laughter that ripples in solid blasts and at peak moments creates gales of fun. Without laughter, there is no point of playing “The Government Inspector.”
The actors Mr. Berger has chosen 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 and lie and take bribes, but at the same time are great fools. The characters are easily taken in by other rogues, or, in this case, by one rogue, Ivan Hlestakov, played brilliantly by Michael Urie, who fools the whole town.
Most of the players are officials of this small city: The Mayor (the superb Michael McGrath), The Judge (Tom Alan Robbins), The School Principal (David Manis) and The Postmaster (Arnie Burton); plus The Mayor's high-hat hoot of a wife, Anna Andreyevna (Mary Testa), and their quieter sweet daughter Marya (Talene Monahon). All give wonderful, lofty performances.
When there are no outsiders to pry into their conduct, they run the city badly. They make themselves comfortable at the expense of the public, bleed the merchants and treat underlings badly. Then, 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 inn is a strange, altogether mysterious fellow, Hlestakov, who refuses to pay his bills and rarely goes out. The locals decide he must be the government inspector, that he must be the fellow who is going to check their records, discover their frauds and peculations and, very likely, 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 sly Mr. Urie, in his virtuoso performance, plays every histrionic trick in the book and other games, as well. 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. The government clerk takes what he can get, proposes to the mayor’s wife and daughter and hilariously drops away just in time.
Gogol's 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 countries.
But that did not make it actor-proof. Mr. 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 government inspector. Mr. Urie gives the comic performance of his career.
The production is impeccable on all fronts: acting, adaptation, direction, artful scenery by Alexis Distler, elaborate costume design by Tilly Grimes and fine lighting design by Megan Lang and Peter West.
“The Government Inspector” is a winner for Mr. Gogol and the estimable Red Bull Theater. It’s on through August 20 at New World Stages on West 50th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It’s not to be missed.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.