A classic case of mistaken identity sets a hilarious ball in motion in The Government Inspector, Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comedy about corrupt officials in a small town, a backwater of “mud and more mud.” The plot follows the mayor (the robust Michael McGrath) who has heard that a government inspector is coming to town—incognito. The mayor and his crooked cronies—the school principal (David Manis), the judge (Tom Alan Robbins) and the hospital director (Stephen DeRosa)—immediately try to clean up the mess they have made of government buildings and services.
The town hospital, built by the mayor’s cousin, an incompetent contractor, is really only suitable for children, so the mayor orders that children be put in the small hospital rooms, and the real patients into the school. Two bumbling landowners (Ryan Garbayo and Ben Mehl) claim they have already spied the government inspector at the local inn, so they all set out to find him to see what they can do to make him think favorably of their town.
At the center of this farce is Hlestakov (played with tremendous physicality and superb comic timing by Michael Urie), whom they believe is the inspector. In reality he’s a hapless young man whose vanity and gambling problem have gotten the best of him. On the run after losing everything in a game of cards, and feeling hopeless, he holes up in a little inn with Osip, his servant, and a gun. He’d shoot himself, but when he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror, his vanity takes over; he gets distracted and can’t carry out the task. Osip (played with the right amount of sardonic cynicism by Arnie Burton) offers to help, but only jokingly. This is the nature of their relationship, and servant seems smarter than the master.
In comparison to the folks in this small town, Hlestakov is a sophisticated and worldly gentleman from the city. When he muddles his way through the classics, shoots off a poem of little merit, and proclaims himself a writer, they are impressed. He tells them he writes under a nom de plume. The mayor’s wife (the excellent Mary Testa) exclaims: “You’re ‘Nom de plume’? I love that writer!” Hlestakov drops the name of Pushkin and claims, “The duel? Mine. The ‘You loved me but I didn’t love you, now I love you, and you can’t have me’ bit? Mine.” They swoon. How would they know? No one is getting much of an education in the town. The school principal claims that his own students would be dangerous “if they knew how to read.”
Alexis Distler uses an unusual split-level stage, with an upper and lower level, to create smaller spaces for the actors, which feels right in this play about corrupt bureaucrats and the claustrophobia of small-town life. Of course, there are differences between the corruption then and now. The postmaster (Burton again) is a busybody who reads everyone’s mail and spreads gossip. A nosy postmaster in 19th-century Russia may certainly have been able to open the mail, but today, hopefully, he’d be fired. On the other hand, he’s a perfect stand-in for the surveillance of technology. Back then, the postmaster knew everything. Today, Big Brother knows everything.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation, which keeps the integrity of time and place, coupled with costumes that nod to the period (by Tilly Grimes) contribute outright to the comedy. The mayor’s wife sees herself as a sophisticated match for Hlestakov, but her clothes sense says otherwise. The dresses that Testa wears are an ode to 18th-century French fashion, but they are so exaggerated that she looks more like Little Bo Peep than Marie Antoinette. The same goes for the police chief (Luis Moreno), who is clad like a Cossack in a large hat, boots and a belt.
Director Jesse Berger’s staging is light and quick. A comedy of this nature relies on impeccable timing, and the superb cast, lead by Urie, McGrath and Testa, keeps the madcap energy going at a high-wattage pace, making The Government Inspector an absolute delight.
The Red Bull Theater’s production of The Government Inspector runs through June 24 at The Duke (229 West 42nd St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and select Wednesdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays. To purchase tickets ($60), call (646) 223-3010, or visit Dukeon42.org, or the box office at the theater.