The vain, reckless son of a rich man is suddenly thrust into power by a venal group of citizens marked by their “ugliness, stupidity, greed, cowardice, corruption and sheer unpleasantness.” That’s the premise, more or less, of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 play “The Government Inspector,” as interpreted by Red Bull Theater’s broad, bawdy production.
What saves this play from a depressing relevance is the phenomenal physical clowning by Michael Urie.
Michael Urie entered into pop culture consciousness as the catty fashion editor’s assistant Marc St. James in the TV series Ugly Betty a decade ago, but the Juilliard graduate has proven with each successive New York stage role that he was born for theater — The Temperamentals, How to Succeed in Business, Homos or Everyone in America, Show for Days, and especially Buyer and Cellar, the play by Jonathan Tolin in which he plays every part, including that of Barbra Streisand.
Urie is certainly not by himself in “The Government Inspector.” Every one of the 14-member is positively vaudevillian in their portrayals, a testament not only to their own talents but to that of director Jesse Berger. But I was struck by Urie’s singular gift for physical comedy, which I don’t remember seeing from him before — gracefully and athletically bumbling around the stage drunk or suicidal, or full of lust or greed.
Urie portrays Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov, a drunken, whoring wastrel who was fired from his job as a low-level bureaucrat and travels through two-bit towns in 19th century Russia spending his father’s money. The officials and administrators of the particular town in which he is at present visiting get the false intelligence that he is a Government Inspector rooting out corruption and incompetence. They do all they can to win his favor – they wine him, dine him and incessantly bribe him.
The school principal uses as bribe money what he was going to use to buy new books for the school board meeting, but he becomes philosophical: “They can burn old books just as easy.”
The townspeople are even dumber than they are corrupt – it’s a town, as the mayor’s wife points out, “where people eat soup with their hands.” The wife (portrayed by the extravagantly bedecked and hilarious Mary Testa) thinks herself above the rubes with whom she is forced to associate: “Mine was a very cultured upbringing. We had a book, and my mother whistled.”
Her husband the mayor (Michael McGrath at the performance I saw, since replaced) is certainly dumb – given the ceremonial hat to wear, he puts on the hatbox instead – but he may be the only one even more cruel and corrupt. Before he curries favor with the false inspector, his calendar for the day (as read by a minion) consisted of: “Evicted the corporal’s widow. Had the corporal’s widow jailed for vagrancy. Flogged the corporal’s widow.”
Their daughter Marya, as Hlestakov puts it, “talks like she wears a chastity belt, but she acts like she knows a lot of locksmiths.” Her mother chastises her for her blunt language. “Men don’t like a woman with a tongue like yours” she says.
“Oh, really? Ask around.”
Such banter is courtesy of the 2008 adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, which is so consistently funny that he’s excused for adding a twist at the end that doesn’t make very much sense. After all, so little in the world makes much sense these days that The Government Inspector feels almost as much documentary as farce.
The Government Inspector is on stage until August 20, 2017.