Nikolai Gogol took for granted that government officials, major and minor, were corrupt. He believed the same of anyone who attained the slightest amount of power. He threaded these convictions through works like his short story “The Nose” and his novel Dead Souls, if less so in the instance of something like his short story “The Overcoat.” And almost always, Gogol laced his writing with sly humor. The Government Inspector, his 1836 play, is one time when he wasn’t so sly. He waxed broadly funny, as the Off-Broadway revival of the play — directed by Jesse Berger and starring Michael Urie at The Duke on 42nd Street — proves with great delight and close to nonstop entertainment.
Jeffrey Hatcher’s knockabout translation, produced by Berger’s Red Bull Theatre, is even more than that. Often, it’s unashamedly corny, which has the effect of proving that when farce is delivered this expertly, under such bold direction, with such over-the-top performing, artistic corn is sweet. The cast — including such adept farceurs as Michael McGrath, Mary Testa, Stephen DeRosa, Mary Lou Rosato, Talene Monahon, Arnie Burton and Tom Allan Robbins — means no end to the rib-tickling and thigh-slapping.
The Government Inspector also represents an astonishing, dervish-like twirl by Urie in the title role. Busy on Manhattan stages during the past few years, he has often appeared as a gay character: a hyper-kinetic protagonist in Jordan Seavey’s Homos or Everyone in America; a Barbra Streisand-adoring, out-of-work actor in Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer and Cellar; legendary fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in Jon Marans’ The Temperamentals. Just last December, Urie even directed Drew Droege’s gay-giddy, shade-throwing Bright Colors and Bold Patterns.
Except in the now-antiquated sense of the adjective, there’s nothing explicitly gay in the arena here, despite several saucy allusions slipped into Hatcher’s script. Urie is wonderful as a nerve-wracked, suicidal, straight-as-an-arrow leading man. He’s unflaggingly hilarious and handsome as a low-level, empty-pocket civil servant mistaken for the titular character. Switching on a kopeck from depressed factotum to visiting luminary, and accepting bribes from worried crooked local officials while teasing the ladies, Urie is a fresh battery of physical buoyancy. At one moment or another he’s doing things like playing piano (or miming it) with great flourish. At the act-one curtain, he topples from the second level of Alexis Disler’s bright, amusing set to the floor below.
As The Government Inspector begins, Mayor Anton Antonovich, surrounded by yes-men officials (Robbins and DeRosa, David Manis, James Rana, Luis Moreno), learns that a government inspector, traveling incognito, is about to arrive in their far-flung provincial town. The bearer of the disturbing information is the postmaster (Burton), who makes a habit of opening and reading all the mail — and getting quite a howl out of it.
That scene occurs stage left in the lower level of Disler’s commodious set. Next, we switch to stage right, lower level — to a scruffy hotel room where Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Urie) holds a pistol to his temple. His suicide attempt is interrupted by his long-suffering servant, Osip (Burton, doing delightful double-duty). Ivan is then interrupted by the mayor and his cronies barging in, believing him to be the titular character.
Next, we move to the floor-through second level of the set — to the mayor’s home, where his plump, pretentious wife, Anna Andreyevna (Testa), hostesses in a gown that, someone comments, makes her look like a lampshade. (Tilly Grimes is the witty costumer.) Also present is the testy daughter of the mayor, Marya Antonovna (Monahon, very wry), for whom the impostering Ivan makes a play, despite simpering Anna throwing herself at him.
Truth to tell, and despite the actors’ enthusiastic carryings-on under Berger’s slick direction, Gogol does run low on steam as the bribes accumulate, as Anna makes her flouncy moves, as the postman reads more letters, as the mayor and his retinue bow and scrape, and as Ivan extemporizes to keep his lucky masquerade going.
For those who don’t already know the play, Ivan’s sudden stroke of luck must necessarily reach its swift end when the actual government inspector is revealed. Confiding how that takes place I’ll spare you. But Gogol, to some extent, does suggests that his upstart protagonist will either receive his unjust reward or a comeuppance — as would usually happen in plots of this cockamamie nature. But Ivan does not. Instead, he more or less flees the scene — leaving some in the audience, I might guess, dissatisfied at not being shown what ultimately transpires for the foolish fellow.
What is both marvelous and dismaying about The Government Inspector is that its comic depiction of political corruption was timely when Gogol was writing and remains so now. The question is: Is it, in fact, more timely? Maybe yes, maybe no. For when those in public office are raking it in, unimpeded, along with his immediate family — ahem — then The Government Inspector indisputably has a special resonance. With his comedy, Gogol — and Hatcher — sardonically imply that sometimes the only recourse in dreadful circumstances is laughter.