Nikolai Gogol meets the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Monty Python, and the Three Stooges in Red Bull Theater’s latest terrific farce, The Government Inspector, which opened last night at the Duke on 42nd St. “Do me a favor; send me some subject, comical or not, but an authentically Russian anecdote. My hand is itching to write a comedy,” Gogol wrote to Alexander Pushkin on October 7, 1835. “Give me a subject and I’ll knock off a comedy in five acts — I promise, funnier than hell. For God’s sake, do it. My mind and stomach are both famished.” Pushkin (Boris Godunov, Eugene Onegin) provided Gogol (Taras Bulba, “The Diary of a Madman”) with an anecdote based on something than happened to him, and the result was Revizo, a wild and wacky sociopolitical slapstick parody that uncovers corruption both in a small Russian village and in humanity itself. Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation never misses an opportunity to capitalize on a bad pun or raunchy joke as the leaders of the town learn that a government inspector has arrived from Moscow, prepared to look into their nefarious doings, which are many, despite Mayor Anton Antonovich’s (Michael McGrath) declaration, “And just when things were going so well!” The opening scene, which takes place in the mayor’s study, a crowded room at the lower right of Alexis Distler’s two-story, three-compartment set, introduces the town brain trust, consisting of the bribe-happy mayor (“It’s a bribe if you eat it, it’s a bribe if you drink it, it’s a bribe if you spend an hour with it and it tells you it’s always been attracted to powerful men but has another appointment at eight!”), the school principal (David Manis), who cannot fire any of his terrible teachers (“Last month I found the poetry instructor in the lavatory with three farm girls and a goat, and I had to write him an apology because I didn’t knock”), a judge (Tom Alan Robbins) whose court is full of shit (“That’s a matter of opinion,” he tells the mayor, who responds, “I’m talking about the geese your bailiff is raising in the jury box! The place is hip high in dung”), and a hospital director (Stephen DeRosa) whose facility has no patients and a doctor (James Rana) who speaks a language no one understands. Meanwhile, the playfully effete postmaster (Arnie Burton) has a habit of opening all of the town’s mail, and not always delivering it, preferring to spread malicious gossip.
Entering the fray are the bumbling sort-of-twins Bobchinksy (Ryan Garbayo) and Dobchinsky (Ben Mehl), Gogol’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who incorrectly identify Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Michael Urie) as the much-feared inspector from Saratov. Actually a low-level clerk and luckless gambler pretty boy who is trying to kill himself, Hlestakov is first seen brandishing a gun in a quaint room in the inn, on the bottom left side of the stage. “I’m sorry to leave you like this, Osip. You’re my only friend, you know that?” he says to the raggedy man (Burton) with him. Osip responds, “I’m not your friend, I’m your servant.” Hlestakov replies, “Well, you’ve behaved like a friend,” to which Osip concludes, “You’ve misunderstood the signals.” Not going through with suicide, Hlestakov instead decides, “No more drinking, no more gambling, no more the pretense that I’m better than I am. From this point forth, I shall lead a simple, honest, courageous life.” But when the mayor and his sycophants start treating him like royalty — and the mayor’s wife, Anna Andreyevna (two-time Tony nominee Mary Testa), and daughter, Marya (Talene Monahon), both show romantic interest in him — well, Hlestakov opts to let them all swoon over him, and, of course, high jinks ensue as the action moves to the top level of the stage, the elegant sitting room in the mayor’s house.
Hatcher (Tuesdays with Morrie, The Turn of the Screw) and Red Bull founding artistic director Jesse Berger (Volpone, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore) keep the jokes and gags flying at warp speed over two hours (with intermission); some are repetitive or fall flat, but the vast majority hit their targets, which include health care, education, the court system, surveillance, class distinction, poverty, power, the institution of marriage, and government itself, with more than a few laughs coming at the expense of the current U.S. administration. Tony winner McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It, Spamalot) and Drama Desk winner Urie (Buyer & Cellar, The Temperamentals) lead the charge in Tilly Grimes’s fab costumes; the former channels Nathan Lane, with big, boisterous bloviating, while the latter, channeling Jim Carrey, is utterly charming, displaying quite a knack for physical comedy. Burton nearly steals the show as both the postmaster and Osip, who develops a direct rapport with the audience, while Mary Lou Rosato, Luis Moreno, and Kelly Hutchinson pop up in multiple smaller, wonderfully ridiculous, roles. “I became a prey to fits of melancholy which were beyond my comprehension,” Gogol once confessed. “In order to get rid of them I invented the funniest things I could think of. I invented funny characters in the funniest situations imaginable.” In today’s exhausting world, The Government Inspector is just the thing to rid us of those fits of melancholy we all experience from time to time, perhaps more often of late.