Gogol's "The Government Inspector" is a play about an impostor, someone who acts a role quite different from his own nature. His "acting" calls into question the role-playing of everyone in a tiny 19th-century Russian town.
In order for it to make any sense, we have to be able to tell what is "normal" behavior and what, on the part of everyone, is "acting." But if all evening long everyone is hamming it up, the play makes no sense at all.
That, I'm afraid, is the way the play comes out in the unfailingly inept hands of Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre. What ought to be a giddy little farce becomes a meaningless, tedious exercise.
The title character in Gogol's play is an impoverished clerk. By a quirk of fate he is mistaken for a government inspector from St. Petersburg come to investigate corruption in the provinces.
As it happens there is plenty to investigate, and the leading citizens, generally surly to one another and their underlings, decide to handle the situation in the most efficient way - to bribe the inspector.
This is hardly a subtle plot, but it can be very funny if the actors make us believe they are stuffy citizens of a provincial backwater genuinely terrified of authority.
Everything hinges, of course, on the title role. If we believe that he is doing a highwire act with no net, fearful he might betray himself and wind up in even hotter water than he is when the play begins, its suspenseful. If we believe that he is as nervous about accepting bribes as the people who offer them to him are about giving them, there is real drama.
But if it's all about eye-rolling and double takes, it seems ridiculous to spend a whole evening watching a story that could have been easily condensed to a one-act. As you might imagine, with Tony Randall in the lead, it's an evening of eye-rolling and double takes.
The role is generally played by young actors since the character is the younger son of an aristocratic family, all of whose wealth has gone to the older brother.
The role falls into the centuries-old tradition of young scamps outwitting the social establishment. If there is no comparable tradition of elderly scamps, it is perhaps because an old man skittering around trying to hoodwink others verges more on pathos than comedy.
Although Randall's capacity to skitter remains largely intact, it's hard to avoid calling this a vanity production. It allows him to play a role he may have wanted to do for many years, but his performance doesn't really serve the play itself very well.
Nor, for that matter, do many of the others. Under Michael Langham's direction, the cast gives performances that tend to be broad - and, in the case of Lainie Kazan, strident.
Some of Douglas Stein's sets - the backs of old-fashioned "flats" - give the production an arty quality, underlining its theatricality. So does the pastiche score by Stanley Silverman.
But like most NAT productions, "Inspector" will leave most of the audience wondering why the play was ever revived.
Astuteness is one of the names of the game in theatrical producing - and it was certainly astute for Tony Randall to elect Nikolai Gogol's hilarious comedy "The Government Inspector" as a vehicle for his National Actors Theater.
It opened last night in a carefully funny production by Michael Langham at the company's home, the Lyceum Theater.
Theatrical comedy - other than the purely verbal, hokey kind - comes in just two sizes. There is the self-explanatory "banana-skin" style, where pride or anything-else-you-have-handy goes before a fall. Then there is "cross-purpose" comedy, in which the audience knows something that members of the play's cast do not.
One of the classic examples of the latter type is "The Government Inspector," which has kept audiences laughing since 1836. The satire, rarely seen here, encompasses one of the sweetest misunderstandings in dramatic literature.
The Police Governor (Peter Michael Goetz) of a tiny Russian provincial town, gets wind of a prospective visit by an Inspector General from St. Petersburg, a Czarist official sent to root out vice and corruption.
As the town's den of vice is only matched by its nest of corruption, consternation among the town's seedy public officials naturally ensues - consternation brought to a head by reports of a mysterious stranger staying at the local inn.
The town leaps to the almost understandable conclusion that this stranger, one Ivan Khlestakov (Randall himself), is the menacing official - although we know from the start that he is merely an impoverished wastrel of a government clerk, a gambler and womanizer, living beyong his means, which have now drooped to an irreducible zero.
No worry. As soon as the village recognizes him for what he's not, he's off and running, boozing and gorging himself at their expense, taking bribes from all hands, even trying to seduce both the Governor's dimly innocent daughter and more complaisant wife. Until...very satisfactorily, the bubble bursts.
Langham, the company's freshly appointed artistic adviser, has proceeded cautiously in this play that demands extraordinarily nimble ensemble acting from a relatively huge cast. It also needs two star turns. I still recall with enormous pleasure the London performances, many years ago, of Bernard Miles and Alec Guinness.
The present ensemble - graced with such company talents as Nicholas Kepros, Michael Lombard and Jack Ryland, and embellished with a grandly vulgar cameo from Lainie Kazan as the Governor's tarty wife - does well.
Goetz is good, although lacking a bit in outrageous bluster. And Randall, adept enough a comedian as we all know, is frankly too old for the role of an upstart, sparkish government clerk. The play - in Adrian Mitchell's recent idiomatic translation, incidentally - takes on a different coloration with a duper, however dapper, in his well-preserved '70s.
Although miscast, Randall, acting like a demon, has that box office star-power probably essential to his fledgling troupe. But Douglas Stein's conceptuatlly vestigial settings looked like a good (and understandably frugal) idea gone gloomy.
All in all, this "Government Inspector" confirms the validity of Randall's embryo Broadway venture in what is still only its third, if best, season.
Tony Randall has devoted himself so tirelessly to the fortunes of the National Actors Theater that you'd like to grant him the occasional indulgence. The company is his, after all, and if he wants to take tickets at the door, direct Ibsen or even sell pina coladas in the lobby at intermission, that is his right. He's earned it.
Nonetheless, why, oh, why did he ever cast himself as the lead in "The Government Inspector," the splendid comedy by Nikolai Gogol that opened last night at the Lyceum Theater? Playing an opportunistic wastrel Gogol described as "a young man, about 23 years old, lean and slim," Mr. Randall is relatively lean, moderately slim and exactly 50 years too old for the part. Putting the make on a foolish provincial lass, he pleads at one point: "Look, I'm on my knees. Didn't you hear them crack?" It's not the only line to take on unwanted resonance under the circumstances.
Even more significant, Mr. Randall's blithe and airy comic presence seems at odds with Gogol's 1836 work, which is set in a Russian backwater populated by corrupt officials and grasping merchants, all panting to grease the paw of the man they believe to be a government inspector from St. Petersburg. Ivan Khlestakov, Mr. Randall's character, is no such thing. He's a perfect nobody, decked out in fancy clothes and down to his last ruble. But he's more than willing to profit from the case of mistaken identity, accept the "loans" that are forced upon him (he delicately refuses to call them bribes), turn the heads of a few women and then go on his merry way. In a borrowed coach, of course.
The National Actors Theater took a big step forward earlier this season with "Timon of Athens" and, indeed, there are enough vigorous performances around Mr. Randall's to suggest that "The Government Inspector" need not have been a step backward. Adrian Mitchell's translation, Americanized by Mark Vietor, moves at a brisk clip. Michael Langham, who has staged this production (as well as "Timon" and last season's "St. Joan"), brings a nice balance of innovation and tradition to the classics. He doesn't reinvent them, as the current terminology puts it, but he certainly revitalizes them. For a middle-of-the-road troupe like the National Actors Theater, he's the right man in the right job.
As long as the focus is on the deluded townsfolk, in fact, "The Government Inspector" has its moments of broad fun. Peter Michael Goetz, looking like a rather large Brillo pad with beady eyes, goes to some amusing extremes as the police governor who has been milking the town dry. He's a big, bristling bully, until he meets his match. Then, like most bullies, he turns into a lily-livered sycophant. The switching back and forth is quick and instinctive. As his social-climbing wife, Lainie Kazan isn't as deliciously vulgar as she might be. But the costumer, Lewis Brown, has so swathed her in billowing silks and satins that Ms. Kazan makes a grand sight gag, suggesting as she does a giant tea cozy on the rampage.
From its inception, the troupe's strongest members have been its character actors, and they continue to give good accounts of themselves. There's nothing subtle about Gogol's rubes; they cry out for the silly walks, the piping voices, the frazzled wigs and the harried features on display at the Lyceum. However, such actors as Michael Stuhlbarg (the postmaster), Jack Ryland (the judge) and the ever dependable Nicholas Kepros (the school superintendent) are careful to ground the idiosyncrasies in truth. As a pair of gossipy landowners tripping over their words and each other's feet, Derek Smith and Jefrey Alan Chandler also manage to factor in some of the dizzy madness of Lewis Carroll. Had Tweedledee and Tweedledum been 19th-century Russians, they'd have probably behaved something like this.
Convinced that the inspector will discover the appalling state of municipal services (the hospital counts two to a bed, and geese are being raised in the courthouse) and eager to defuse his anger with cash and flattery, the characters are well primed for the deception that engulfs them. Still, if the play is to work, you've got to have a deceiver, unwitting at first, puzzled by events, yes, but increasingly thrilled to take advantage of the toadying imbeciles streaming through the door. Mr. Randall - his hair brushed forward boyishly and his cheeks and eyelids generously rouged - tends to play the ersatz inspector as a supercilious fop, and the superciliousness detaches him from the charade just when he should be entering fully into it.
You never see him getting carried away. He has no natural swagger to call upon. When it comes time for him to seduce the police governor's giddy daughter (Nancy Hower), she gets no more than a chaste kiss on the forehead. While the production is filled with performers reacting in excitement and panic, Mr. Randall doesn't give them a whole lot to react to. Half of Gogol's comic equation is missing.
The settings by Douglas Stein have been fashioned out of unpainted cloth flats, although gold sconces and glass chandelier indicate the elegance to which the better townsfolk aspire. At the start of scenes, the furniture and walls are draped in sheets, which are then whipped away by the actors. It's as if unannounced company were suddenly coming, which, in a manner of speaking, is the case. The slightly makeshift (but not unattractive) look of the production is, I assume, intentional. It reinforces the notion that Gogol's characters caught with their hands in sundry tills, must improvise their way out of a fix. Stanley Silverman's music and Dan Moses Schreier's sound effects, ranging from an ominous creaking of floorboards to titanic thunderclaps, also provide running commentary of their own on the action.
The production's problems stem largely from Mr. Randall's performance. Oddly enough, with his aura of distracted innocence and those popping eyes, he'd probably be quite entertaining as one of Gogol's dupes. As the star of "The Government Inspector," he seems only to be duping himself.
With his stagings of "Saint Joan" last season and this past fall's "Timon of Athens," director (and National Actors Theater artistic adviser) Michael Langham breathed some life into Tony Randall's young company. But in his second outing with the group this season, Langham takes the troupe, and Randall, back into familiar territory: "The Government Inspector" is a deadly pedestrian account of a satire that time, as Liviu Ciulei demonstrated at Circle in the Square in 1978 , has not faded since its 1836 premiere.
The failure is even more compelling given the sad spectacle of Randall himself in the title role, a St. Petersburg clerk mistaken for a government inspector by the cretinous leaders of a provincial outpost, who shower the willing impostor with bribes, booty and bombast. But Randall's Khlestakov is not so much a bureaucrat on the luckiest day of his life as a lecherous old buffoon -- Pantalone or Dottore -- out of commedia dell'arte.
Only once do star, company and director seem to harmonize, and that is in the play's darkest moment. It occurs in Act II, when the townsfolk who have suffered most from their leaders' greed and abuse converge on Khlestakov's perch at the police governor's house. The sight of this multitude moving in on him like a wretched force of nature sickens him; he orders the police to beat them away.
The rest, however, is sleep-inducing at best. Unlike his Jazz Age "Timon," Langham here takes a conservative tack, providing a provincial look and atmosphere to echo the play's parochial setting. It's clearest in Douglas Stein's touring rep-style set (softly and aptly lighted by Richard Nelson), in which various rooms, draped but visible upstage, roll forward when needed. Lewis Brown's period costumes complete the effect, though none of it is what you'd call innovative.
In the leading role of the police governor, Peter Michael Goetz is a beefy, blustery, hairy Russian bear who lacks menace, if not cynicism. As his wife, Lainie Kazan is unbearable for entirely different reasons, having wandered in, one imagines, from a revival of "Abie's Irish Rose." Nancy Hower is equally insufferable and anachronistic as their whiny daughter.
Michael Stuhlbarg has a nice turn as the nerdy postmaster, as do Jack Ryland as the corrupt judge and Michael Lombard as the brutal charities commissioner. As the school superintendent, Nicholas Kepros, in a very strange black wig, is otherwise his familiar dour, jowly self.
Derek Smith and Jefrey Alan Chandler are droll as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, the nattering gossips who set the episode in motion. But the best performance of the evening belongs to David Patrick Kelly, who plays Khlestakov's beleaguered valet Osip with great comic verve.
Randall has announced his intention to cast himself in comic roles for which he feels suited. With every performance he's imposed upon the company, however, he's demonstrated poor judgment and an outdated acting style. His reality is in sorry conflict with his dream, and one will inevitably give way to the other. Which succeeds -- the vain performer who refuses to give up the spotlight or the determined impresario with the vision to build a classical rep company -- seems entirely up to him.