Michael Urie and Arnie Burton in Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 Russian farce “The Government Inspector,” adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Jesse Berger, at the Duke on 42nd Street through June 24. | CAROL ROSEGG
BY DAVID KENNERLEY | With a massive ensemble bursting with Broadway-caliber comedic talent, it’s hard to imagine how they got any work done during rehearsals of the latest revival of “The Government Inspector,” Nikolai Gogol’s goofy farce about greed run amok.
Lead by the irrepressible Michael Urie (the former “Ugly Betty” star who’s been on a roll with critical hits like “Buyer & Cellar,” “How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Homos, or Everyone in America”), the cast also boasts the incomparable Mary Testa (“Chicago”), Michael McGrath (“The Front Page”), Arnie Burton (“The 39 Steps”), Stephen DeRosa (“Hairspray”), and many others.
The depth of expertise is abundantly clear onstage. In the hands of the bold, crafty Red Bull Theater, this 1836 gem feels as vital as ever, in no small part due to Jeffrey Hatcher’s modern adaptation.
Michael Urie dazzles as a feckless scoundrel in a timely comedy of errors
Although the script has not been updated to the present-day or set in another locale — say, Washington — it has been goosed-up with clever contemporary touches. The language is fresher, the jokes are crisper, and under the assured guidance of Jesse Berger, the well-timed delivery feels like a top-notch sitcom (that’s meant as a compliment).
Urie is superb as the self-deluded, lowly civil servant named Hlestakov, clueless to the fact that he’s being mistaken for a high-ranking government inspector traveling incognito and tasked with rooting out corruption in a small provincial Russian town (he thinks everybody is simply being friendly). He fails to catch on even when the town officials start slipping him wads of ruble notes. But how long can this silly charade continue before the real inspector appears?
The exceptional McGrath lends an oily brashness to the Mayor role, channeling the best of Nathan Lane, while Testa shines as the Mayor’s deviously coquettish, less-than-fetching wife, Anna, who must compete with her morose daughter, Marya (a deliciously deadpan Talene Monahon), for the affections of the government inspector.
Perhaps the actor with the biggest challenge is Burton, who plays two very different key roles. His Paul Lynde-esque take on the swishy Postmaster, who reads everyone’s letters and talks longingly of being “invaded by Frenchmen,” might be seen as offensive in its hackneyed portrait of a gay man if it weren’t so funny. Burton also portrays Hlestakov’s seedy, wisecracking valet.
Like any good farce, the piece is overstuffed with mistaken identities, revealing asides, chase scenes with multiple slamming doors, outrageous period costumes (by Tilly Grimes), and crackling dialogue spiked with off-color jokes that land almost every time. To wit: “Men don’t like a woman with a tongue like yours,” Anna says, admonishing Marya, who has just verbally lashed out at her. Marya replies with contempt, “Oh really? Ask around.”
Not that “The Government Inspector” has only hijinks on its mind. The savvy satire raises pointed questions about the moral bankruptcy and corruption of power-hungry government officials, the idiocy of bureaucracy, the oppression of less fortunate folks, and the dangers of self-delusion. Timeless issues that still resonate with a sting today.
THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR | Red Bull Theater at the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St. | Through Jun. 24: Tue.-Wed. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60 at redbulltheater.com or 646-223-3010 | Two hrs., with intermission