In a way, the premise behind The Government Inspector couldn’t be simpler. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 satire of Russian small-town politics centers on Mayor Anton Antonovich (Michael McGrath) and his corrupt gang of municipal cronies, who learn that an undercover inspector from the czar has arrived in their village to scope out government abuses. As bumbling as they are venal, they wrongly assume the incognito snoop is Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie), a dandyish, cash-strapped bureaucrat who just happens to be passing through town while chasing gambling wins out in the provinces. Initially confused by the flattery and bribes he starts getting from the town leaders, Hlestakov soon realizes he can play along, take them for a ride, and make some quick cash.
In short, The Government Inspector is a drama for our times. It exists among a handful of canonical plays that 2017 has made critically relevant again, all of which demonstrate the ease with which politics and civil society can be debased; one thinks of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Brecht’s Arturo Ui, and Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. It’s a dark syllabus, to be sure, but Gogol’s is the funniest of all these, hands down — particularly in Jeffrey Hatcher’s witty, withering, endlessly entertaining (and super loose) adaptation, currently playing in a new production at the Red Bull Theater.
It’s a play and a rendition that deserve to be seen. Director Jesse Berger taps straight into the grotesque veins in Gogol’s writing, coaxing stylized performances from his expert cast of clowns. The acting style is deliberately broad and cartoonish, almost mock-melodramatic throughout, with actors sawing the air at every turn — yet, miraculously, never descending into mere scenery-chewing. Pretty much every member of the cast is delightful to watch, though a few deserve special praise: Arnie Burton very nearly steals the show twice in a pair of bit roles (as a servant and, even better, the town’s postmaster); McGrath makes an appealing blowhard as Mayor Antonovich; and Mary Testa shines as the mayor’s pompous, salacious wife, Anna Andreyevna. When she first shows up onstage, looking outrageous in a larger-than-life hoop skirt, her husband asks bluntly, “Why are you dressed like a lamp from a whorehouse?” The rest of this production lives up to Andreyevna’s wardrobe.
At the center of it all, in the role of Hlestakov, Urie gives a performance that is close to flawless. Lithe and limber in voice and movement, and physically precise in each expressive detail, he seems to dance the part as much as he acts it, doing so with evident, mischievous glee. Whether Hlestakov is contemplating suicide, getting wasted — in a hilarious turn of stage drunkenness — or bursting into a song-and-dance routine, Urie commands the stage with each mercurial movement of the face, hands, and legs. It’s so easy to get lost in the enjoyment his performance generates, one could almost forget that it’s not really Vladimir Putin’s America we live in nowadays: It’s Gogol’s.
The Government Inspector
The Duke on 42nd Street
229 West 42nd Street
Through June 24