The Government Inspector
A Comedy of Corruption
By Nikolai Gogol, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012, D–113&114 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Michael Kahn
Hugh Nees as Bobchinsky, Rick Foucheux as the Mayor and Harry A. Winter as Dobchinsky with Craig Wallace as the School Principal (background) in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Government Inspector. Photo by Scott Suchman, Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Something in the way that one and one and one are not four proves to be the lingering mystery of this production. Take a cast of local all-stars, give them a classic comedy, and put them in the hands of Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, whose deft touch in previous farcical romps scored the hugest laughs heard around Washington, D.C., the past two years, and you shouldn’t end up with something as pedestrian as this Government Inspector turns out to be. What ingredient soured the formula is not obvious.
Certainly it is not Nikolai Gogol’s original creation. His 1836 Russian play is one of the supreme satires of midmodern theater, telling the story of Hlestakov, a reprobate (list the vice, he’s got it) who is mistaken for a government inspector visiting a provincial town with top-to-bottom, all-sector corruption. Hlestakov, in debt, drunk, and unable to control his gambling and tomcat tendencies, finds himself the recipient of unfathomable hospitality, monetary gifts, and sexual advances. Not knowing who exactly he’s supposed to be, he plays along nonetheless and catches on not only to the town’s culture of bribery but the going rate, too.
To say that corruption is part of the community culture is an understatement. It’s woven into the town’s fabric. At the top of the corruption pyramid is the mayor, exemplary in the efficiency with which he runs his cottage industry of bribery, scams, and kickbacks. Construction of the new hospital included so many kickbacks that the rooms are too small for patients, let alone beds (for the inspector’s visit, the administrator fills the hospital with supposedly sick children). The school was built on donations from fathers of failing students, but because the donors were more interested in sports than education, the school has six gyms (for the inspector’s visit, the inept teachers are sent out to the woods). The Judge admits he uses the size of payoffs to tip the scales of justice, but is not sure himself how to instigate a bribe until Hlestakov legitimately asks him for a loan and the Judge interprets “loan” as the code word. Even the peasants, who petition the supposed inspector for retribution against the town officials, end up offering to “loan” Hlestakov all manner of goods and merchandise, including food.
No character escapes Gogol’s satirical swipe, and his pen doesn’t just point at the town’s moral lapses. He also pokes fun at its backwater ways. The inn serves rat soup. The Mayor’s wife dresses in a manner that she thinks is city sophisticate but looks like she stitched together and draped on all the fabric of a French courtesan’s parlor. The Postmaster reads everyone’s mail. The gentlemen farmers—who resemble the pigs at the end of Orwell’s Animal Farm—look, act, and talk like identical twins (except one has a lisp) though they are not even related.
Hatcher first adapted Gogol’s play for a Guthrie Theater production in 2008 and has since scaled back its cast size. The jokes are funny enough in their timelessly topical way, whether they’re about elitism, cultural priorities, the inability to fire teachers, or a government skidding along on greased palms. A few jokes score eight-level laughs, but many more garner little more than snickers, and some don’t even manage that. Maybe a play produced to coincide with the climax of this year’s election campaigns suffers from that timing as we’ve become numb to political humor (my wife, Sarah, chuckled more often than I did, but she is an avowed political junky). The funniest lines instead are not only character-driven but character insights, especially those about Hlestakov’s dubious character. As Helestakov launches his seduction of Marya, the Mayor’s daughter, he presses her to admit that she lusts for him. “Let me put it this way,” she replies: “If you didn’t exist, I wouldn’t make you up.”
Such gems are in the script (plus some added by this production), so maybe it is the cast that doesn’t quite deliver, even though it is a veritable who’s who of STC and D.C. veterans: Derek Smith (Hlestakov), Rick Foucheux (the Mayor), Nancy Robinette (Anna, the Mayor’s wife), David Sabin (the Judge), Floyd King (the Postmaster), Craig Wallace (the School Principal), Tom Story (the Doctor), Lawrence Redmond (the Hospital Director), Hugh Nees (Bobchinsky, one of the farmers), Harry A. Winter (Dobchinsky, the other farmer), and Sarah Marshall (in three roles: the mayor’s maid Grusha, the Innkeeper’s Wife, and the Corporal’s Widow). Type some of these actors into the Shakespeareances.com search engine and see how highly we’ve regarded them in other plays. But here, we see too much mugging and sideway glances too obviously telegraphing a joke. All that is missing is a drummer’s ba-da-boom. With nothing to fill the laugh pauses, almost everybody’s timing seems off.
This creates a disconnect between the jokes and the situational comedy. Ensemble scenes in particular come off like a collection of stand-up comedians doing sketches rather than a company telling a story. As such, some truly great humor slips through unnoticed. Hlestakov early in the play hears about a corporal’s widow who flogs herself. The initial joke is that because the Mayor has syphoned off the tax money, he has no budget for a constable to do the flogging, so the criminals must punish themselves (if they can’t pay him off). The libertine Hlestakov is, for an altogether different reason, intrigued by the image of a “corporal’s widow who flogs herself” so when he does meet her during the peasant’s revolt, he’s disappointed to see she’s an old woman with a huge hump on her shoulder. Such multiple-layered nuances, though, get lost in all the look-I'm-funny posturing.
The exceptions are Liam Craig, who plays Hlestakov's no-nonsense servant Osip in a no-nonsense way that allows his disses to shine through, and Claire Brownell, who plays Marya as a Goth-like teen-ager exuding disinterest. What they have in common is that because their characters are so unexpressive, their comedy comes through more so than that of the other characters who must contend with fussy portrayals. Delivering his lines with laconic cynism, delivering her lines with a “duh!” expression, and both framing their deliveries in ironic pauses, their zingers truly zing. Marya's “disinterest” does not mean a-sexual, though—this is made clear early in the play—and with Hlestakov, Marya responds to his seduction with her fumbling into romance. The courtship scene between Brownell and Smith is the production’s comic highlight as Marya, hearing that the supposed inspector is a poet, insists that he make up a poem about her on the spot. “And it has to rhyme," she says, "with my name: Marya Antonovna Skvoznik Dumakhanovsky.”
This scene demonstrates the potential for the whole production to be funny on all levels: situational, character-driven, gag-filled. It thus heightens the mystery of how such a stellar cast with such a clever script formed from such a genius composition could result in a play that is a ba-da-boomless vaudeville act. It left me wondering if the medium is part of the message. Rather than being at a first-class national theater, I feel at times that I am back in a provincial community theater, as if the production we are watching here in D.C. is actually being mounted in Gogol’s provincial backwater town. That would be a clever concept. Doesn’t make it funnier, though.
October 1, 2012