We complain about politicians, government corruption and collusion and applaud when the offenders are caught and penalized. The Red Bull Theater’s production of The Government Inspector gives us a humorous behind-the-scenes view. Written by Nikolai Gogol in the 1830’s and adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, the comedy focuses on a small Russian village led by a conniving mayor (Michael McGrath) and the town’s equally unscrupulous bureaucrats. They are greedy and self-serving and naturally panic when they hear that an undercover government inspector is coming to their town to root out corruption.
When they mistake a low-level clerk for the inspector, they pull out all the stops to win him over with bribes and favors. At first, the young man (played by Michael Urie) is confused by all the attention and favors he’s receiving; he assumes he’s to be arrested for all the bills he’s incurred. Once he realizes that they have mistaken him for someone else, he takes full advantage of them. A womanizer, he also sets out to win over both the mayor’s daughter and the mayor’s lusty wife (the always-hysterical Mary Testa.)
There’s no one to root for… the mayor sees bribery as the mainstay of his office, the director of the hospital hires a foreign-speaking doctor who can’t communicate let alone cure patients, and the headmaster of the school accepts bribes for sports fields rather than classrooms. The cast of unsavory characters also includes two greedy landowners who resemble each other enough to be mistaken for twins, and a gay postmaster who reads everyone’s mail and spreads gossip.
No one is likable so the audience revels in the mockery. The comedy is broad with lots of visual humor (almost Marx Brothers-like in certain scenes as all the town officials crowd in a closet). An actress walking on her knees plays a diminutive maid, and Testa wearing a flouncy pink dress, looks like a wedding cake. Urie is especially funny and uses his lithe body for humor. The mayor tries to get him drunk to find out more about him and Urie milks that scene. The clever setting is composed of two stories of the mayor’s house and the office and the inn underneath. Urie hoists himself from one to the other. He is a master of facial expressions and the early scene in which he half-heartedly attempts to kill himself rather than be arrested is quite funny.
There is some verbal humor as well. Some of the comedy is derived from the origin of the play and Russian writers. Urie's character talks about his own writing and how he hopes it’s Godunov. In an attempt to impress the young man, the mayor’s wife “speaks” French, mangling the language.
Although the play is over a hundred years old, there seems to be a current message, especially given recent news reports suggesting collusion and political favors being exchanged with Russia. When a character says, “This town represents what our country is at this point in our history,” he pointedly looks at the audience.
The satire is funny, arched and pointed; yet there’s no hero. The crooks get taken — but it’s by another crook. As the mayor notes, “Public service is a calling… come and get it.” The Government Inspector is an hysterical reminder that some things never change.