Guthrie's Government Inspector a first-rate farce

Russians dressing: Lee Mark Nelson, Kris L. Nelson, Sally Wingert, and Peter Michael Goetz (from left)
Michal Daniel

As someone who once logged a certain amount of deeply satisfying and restorative R.E.M. sleep in the back seat of a state-owned car (yes, on the clock), I can lay claim to knowledge about incompetence and petty corruption in government employment. Judging from Nikolai Gogol's 1835 The Government Inspector, though, the provincial Russians of his time made me look like Horatio Alger.

The action is set in a small town, and there's nary a sympathetic figure in sight. The mayor (Peter Michael Goetz, alternately furiously disdainful and aggressively obsequious) is on the take. The hospital director (Stephen Yoakam) presides over an empty, miniature facility made unusable by a corrupt contractor. The judge (Wayne A. Evenson) dispenses verdicts based on the size of his plaintiffs' bribes. And the schoolmaster (Raye Birk) presides over a staff that ranges from the moronic to the technically insane.

The four of them get word that the titular government inspector is coming from St. Petersburg to evaluate their job performance for the czar, and the quartet promptly shit themselves (metaphorically). It's a very funny scene, crackling with craft and speed, and Joe Dowling's direction finds an appropriate level of silliness for this farce, yet without being more obvious than the scenario demands.

A lot of the credit goes to Gogol, here adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher. Hatcher is an inspired choice to take a fresh run at this material, not least because his writing is so consistently deft and funny, swinging wildly in tone from one line to the next. In the early going Goetz gets a lot of the plum lines, such as remarking that his wife's dress looks like a "lamp in a whorehouse," then holding an index digit aloft and declaring that he has to "put my finger in a lot of dikes today."

When the town's luminaries get word that a stranger from the capital has been staying at the local inn, they surmise that it's their inspector, and set about trying to cajole him into not spilling the beans about their general crappiness. The problem is that Ivan (Hunter Foster) isn't who they think he is—he's a sodden gambler who has squandered a vast amount of his father's money and is left with only a white-knuckle collection of debts and his grumbling servant, Osip (Luverne Seifert, hidden under a great pile of grime but signaling all manner of deviousness with his eyes).

Ivan gradually catches on that he's living out the sitcom reality of mistaken identity, and he makes the most of it, getting raving drunk and impressing the yokels with tales of his wholly imaginary fabulous life in the big city. Then, in the second act, Dowling, Hatcher, and Gogol's ghost explore all varieties of wrongness. Ivan enters into a romantic triangle with the mayor's wife (Sally Wingert, able to slay with a glance) and daughter (Maggie Chestovich, giving a clinic on adolescent haughty scorn), all based on a bet with Osip that he can score in the amorous realm as well as the remunerative.

The ending hinges on a twist that, even if you're not familiar with Gogol's original script, you may well see coming from the first act (mustn't spoil it here, though Jim Lichtscheidl as the town's postman, a scene stealer all night with a louche delivery and repressed horniness, sparks the process of laying waste to everyone involved with a letter purloined from Ivan). And at times you may get that creaky feeling farce sometimes produces—the sense of being induced to laugh a few times more than you really want to.

But it amounts to a quibble, really. The Government Inspector has a sharpshooter cast and a script that's a mountain of firecracker witticisms ("Alone at last," says the mayor's wife in a private moment with Ivan. "Well, not really," Ivan says. "I'm here.") The Guthrie has laid out smart crowd-pleasers two summers in a row (including last year's 1776). Credit due, credit duly given. Government work has rarely looked more attractive. 

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