Corruption, bribery, pay offs siphoning off citizens’ taxes and lifeblood in a small town? What could be more symbolically representative of politics, whether such machinations take place in Russia or the United States today? In good times, officials steal roundly and with less accountability because citizens are economically well placed to go about their lives. In harsh economic times the sub rosa avarice of bureaucrats who serve themselves first and serve the public never, always raises a hue and cry. When the little people are squeezed, they pressure their overlords to uphold the “sanctity of their positions.” Usually, the miscreants don’t and must be brought to heel. And sometimes there is even justice.
For playwright Nikolai Gogol, such a scenario, laden with hypocrisy and condemnation was a golden treasure trove of comedy. He has proven this with Revizor adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher into The Government Inspector, currently enjoying an extended run at New World Stages.
What a marvelous production this is. It is relevant to our political times which encapsulate the play’s themes. This satire of small town government officials and their general incompetence and corrupt misapplication of their mission and public service is a relief and respite from disheartening nightly news. For that alone, it is a must-see. Apart from that, this production is a must-see because it is just terrific.
For Jeffrey Hatcher who was commissioned to adapt Gogol’s Revizor into a version which would be performed for the 2008 Guthrie season, it was a “kick.” He clarifies that it was an election year. The barnyard of democrats and republicans was in full cacophonic frenzy. Hatcher’s enjoyment is evident in this adroit adaptation. Indeed, he steps up Gogol’s humorous scenario of malevolent politicians who have the tables turned on them, as they conspire to cover-up their cronyism, graft and malfeasance.
Hatcher delivers the best of Gogol and allows the Russian playwright’s genius to shine. With finely tuned direction (Jesse Berger) and exceptional ensemble work, The Government Inspector is madcap, zany and high comedic exhilaration.. Hatcher nimbly tweaks the playwright’s work just enough to enhance the hysteria in the comedy, acute jokes and incredible witticisms. His writing makes this production so completely sumptuous, you will want to feed on it again and catch a second time the artful ironies and slick phrases that ring with truth and reality at every laugh riot of a turn.
How satisfying it is to see the petty, self-dealing bureaucrats hoisted on their own greedy petard when they are duped by one of their own, who is even more mercenary than they. This is a normally improbable justice that we are privy to see, as it is unwittingly launched by error. When the government officials receive their own comeuppance, we are assured that the lofty are most greatly impugned and punished by their own shame, humiliation and self-deception. At this time in our social and political history, we are thrilled to laugh riotously at the characters’ machinations and their unhappy conclusions which remind us that “what goes around comes around.” What a pleasure!
The performances are the jewels that provide the glitter and the piquant vibrancy of the production. Without this ensemble, the jokes would scintillate but not with the power to strike as hard and send us as furiously as they do into the comic heavenlies.
In the first scene, we are introduced to the conflict and meet the dastardly mayor (Michael McGrath is wonderfully on point with every hysterical line, every turn of phrase) and his legion of nefarious officials, the illuminating and funny Tom Alan Robbins, William Youmans, Stephen Derosa, James Rana, Luis Moreno. Hatcher/Gogol pull back the veil as the politicians chatter and conspire and we are allowed to see where they have buried all the financial duplicities and discover who is taking what and how the mandate and mission of the judge, the principal, the hospital and law enforcement have been mismanaged to a preposterous degree. (It’s kind of like appointing an EPA director who will dismantle all of the environmental regulations to fund anti-green corporations.)
As for privacy concerns? All the town gossip, all of the secrecies and personal intimacies and weaknesses are explored and savored for broadcast by The Postmaster (the unforgettable Arnie Burton) who enthusiastically reads every line in each letter, sharing the juiciest and most damning information with his cronies for entertainment. Burton’s portrayal of the Postmaster is moment to moment LMAO; the comedy comes out of the personality of the character which makes his performance absolutely sublime. In this town there is no detail which is not known or kept quiet that Arnie’s Postmaster doesn’t blabber with gusto. He certainly is a tool of the corrupt political machine; he helps it keep abreast of its enemies to forestall any dangers to its power structure.
At the meeting of these wicked corrupt, they discuss their grave problem which is a threat to their livelihood and career positions. An investigator has come to the town in disguise to explore the level of malfeasance. They fear that he will hold them to account. All the officials and even two local landowners (the funny Ben Mehl and Ryan Garbayo) must work together, discover the hidden identity of this “spy” and turn him over to their side with bribes and payoffs. It is an intrigue that holds danger for the officials and promise for the little people who we don’t really see as we are in thick with the conspirators, a completely enjoyable and refreshing sardonic view.
What has been a boisterous and satiric introduction is jettisoned into a hyperbole of hilarity in the next scene where we meet a lowly civil servant, the ineffectual would-be suicide Hlestakov (the unforgettable and prodigiously talented Michael Urie) and his clever servant Osip (the versatile Arnie Burton). Hlestakov can’t quite “do the job” with a pistol to free himself of this unrequitable earthly plane, his gambling debts and the ignominy of a meager, zero-of-a-life, which he has badly used.
Because Hlestakov is incompetent at suicide, we have an hour and one-half of side-splitting laughter. Urie fashions comical uproariousness by using all the acting tools of his instrument. He flawlessly surfs the cresting waves of farcical action which he has helped to inflate. He is rather like a fine composer assisted by the incredible accompaniment of the ensemble, who spin their superbly tuned acting instruments into a wild symphony of raucous delight.
In this production Urie has stretched his talents to new heights. He is reminiscent of some of the comic greats; select any one of them in film, television or theater. He distills the substance of his lines then infuses them with the character of Hlestakov filtered through and around himself so that the civil servant who dupes the corrupted officials, and he, Michael Urie, are indivisible. Not only does Urie have seamless timing, he anticipates the power of pauses which he capitalizes on with grace, fluidity and an uncanny communication with the watchful, listening audience. Very simply, he captures Hlestakov’s being and rounds it out with Chaplinesque force and will.
As grand accompaniments, Mary Lou Rosato (various roles), Kelly Hutchinson (various roles), Mary Testa (the mayor’s wife) and Talene Monahon (the mayor’s daughter) are divine comedians. Without them the production would fly at a lower pitch. They are integral to the revelation of pretense behind the mayor, who is a wanna-be aspiring to nobility but must wallow in the mud of his position as a small-town functionary. And they (Testa, Monahon) provide the grist upon which Urie’s Hlestakov bakes the fabulous bread we devour to nurture our souls with exuberance and glee.
Indeed, all of the servant portrayals, each one more clever and shrewd than their masters/mistresses, are exceptionally delineated as characters and specifically portrayed by the actors. If one considers that in less than one hundred years what they are to “inherit” after the Revolution, there are no insignificant characters here, but they are the most prescient in biding their time waiting, in due season to dispatch here and there the fools they serve.
The dynamic arc of the play’s development is expertly unfolded so that by the conclusion, we have feasted and are sated. We recognize how thrilling it is to take our part in this rollicking spectacle which is perfectly congenial in its staging, set design, lighting, costuming and the thematic symbolism of its physical, emotional and intellectual levels. This seemingly effortless and easy production took loving care, sagacity and genius to effect the terror of its satire, the bounty of its humor, the innovation of its celebrated cast. Kudos to Jesse Berger who magnificently brought this together and who had the quick-witted spirit and grace to understand how to let it “all hang out,” using the structure of these artists’ inner freedom to live within the boundaries of Gogol’s classic.
If you don’t see this production you will have missed something truly wonderful and riotous. If you do see it, expect the audience to break into laughter and applause frequently because the infection of joy is abundant and bounces liberally between audience and cast. The two hours with one intermission race by.
Joe Orton, the British playwright whose London hit Entertaining Mr. Sloan proved his brilliance, had his life cut short in 1967 at the age of 34. He was killed by his partner, who committed suicide in recompense for killing Orton. It is the theater world’s great loss, for Orton had experienced the steam of greatness as an exceptional playwright/writer, but not the substance. Whenever a production of his zany, dark comedies is revived, see it to appreciate the frenzy of hyperbolic farce that Orton was marvelous at creating. Impeccable timing and jeweled turn of phrase characterize Orton’s work. He is sardonic, like Wilde; over the top, like Monty Python; an iconic British wit.
Loot, in revival at the Lucille Lortel’s Red Bull Theater until February 9, is one of Orton’s gems. This production, directed by Jesse Berger, conveys Orton’s scorn of entrenched social institutions (religious, judicial, legal, medical). Clearly, the playwright had a rollicking time opening them to ridicule. This is appropriate for us currently; the hypocrisies Orton lays bare, are snatched from the 1960s. Yet, they are immutable now as they were then. In the delivery of the madcap and over-the-top plot extremities, we are able to bear the painful truths expressed underneath. If fraud, official corruption, murder and theft are the stuff of life, at least they can be used as meat to gnaw on for our entertainment sustenance in the hands of a savvy, sharp playwright, able director and acute acting ensemble.
The setting, the McLeavy living room is comfortably furnished with chairs and tables circling the walls, a locked chifferobe and what looks to be a folding screen more befitting a hospital room than a living room. The room is a style cacophony of weird items, the most strange being the coffin with decorative grave flowers at center stage. Thus begins the wackiness which develops into full-blown mayhem.
We discover from Fay, Mrs. McLeavy’s live-in nurse (Rebecca Brooksher), in a discussion with barely sentient, grieving Mr. McLeavy (a hysterical Jarlath Conroy), that the funeral service is today. The lovely nurse is a sweet, unassuming golddigger who has been married and widowed seven times.She is looking to be widowed again, after she marries Mr. McLeavy who is overwhelmed with grieving his wife and straightening out his affairs, especially his confused mind and emotions. While Fay encourages him that a month or so is an appropriate time to remarry, son Hal McLeavy (Nick Westrate) bursts onto the scene. His entrance with his beloved (he is gay) buddy Dennis (he is a polyamorous bisexual), fosters a scene switch into a plot convolution that stirs up the cauldron of madness.
Hal is like a young George Washington; he can not tell a lie once confronted with the truth. Dennis (Ryan Garbayo), the undertaker will transport Hal’s mum to the cemetery.The other reason Dennis is with Hal is that both have committed a bank robbery and Dennis has become the chief suspect after his questioning earlier in the day. Better his questioning than Hal’s which would be disastrous for them both, for Hal, a parboiled Catholic with issues, can’t lie. If the moral contradiction of not being able to lie but having no problem with stealing seems patently absurd, you’re right. It is and so is the hypocrisy it represents; this is one of Orton’s tucked away jewels. The play abounds with them.
Dennis fears he will be pinched if he can’t stash the hot “loot” away from the piercing eyes of one particular copper, Truscott, (Rocco Sisto, who is hilarious in his continually indignant state). Truscott, who later appears in a poor disguise as an official from the Water Board, has been snarling and eying Dennis like a canny German shepherd. It is only a matter of time before Truscott finds him, discovers the evidence and throws him in prison, especially if he asks Hal any questions about the theft.
The loot which has been stashed but the locked armoire i is the first place anyone would look; and Fay, who can sniff out money like a dog sniffs out a bone, has intimated to Hal that she knows the loot is there and will expose them in a blackmail scheme. When she leaves, simultaneously, both spy the coffin with Mrs. McLeavy’s body inside. Hide the loot in the body? Gruesome, bloody horror! Hal is a “good” Catholic and that would be untoward. Besides, this is a farce, no matter how black hearted. Hide the body in the armoire and the loot in the coffin and lock both.? Perfect! That way Hal will not be lying if he has to deny the thousands are inside the wardrobe. And if someone gets a crowbar and breaks open the chiffarobe? They’ll be a bloody hell of a surprise. Mrs. McLeavy has been stuffed like a sausage and pickled with embalming fluid. She’s a real stiff.
The official from The Water Board (investigator Truscott inept disguise) interrupts their plans to check the water system. Hal and Dennis quickly send him off to the pipes, then speedily trundle the coffin to the armoire and lob in the corpse. In their frenetic haste they flip poor ole mummy like they’re hefting a log onto a wood pile. Their antics are hysterical especially in light of Hal’s professed Catholicism that has forbade him to see his mum naked but allows him to manhandle her remains. The woman hasn’t been able to RIP since she passed.
After this inglorious treatment, the miscreants lock the chiffarobe and dump their cash booty in the coffin sealing it just in time to escape detection. Truscott figures his inept disguise and circular questioning will eventually trip up the thieves so he can pin them like dead insects with the evidence, pulling out all the stops in his “intelligence” to do so. Orton’s characterization of detective Truscott, is an absurdity of confusion, all in the service of quick humor; Truscott is brilliant-inane, hypocritical-legalistic, corrupt but honest about it, opportunistic and self-serving. He is this and more in the interest of feathering his own nest, but money is his object.
The body-cash swap heightens our belly laughs. We see how these ingrates have dumped Mrs. McLeavy in a “most shameful position.” Added to the romp is Truscott’s indignation and frustration at the suspects “innocence” made all the more hysterical by his ridiculous questions which are as twisted as their answers. The scene is surprising and wonderful.
When Fay and Mr. McLeavy enter the fray, they contribute with flippant repartee. The pace steps up, high jinks fueled by understatement, irony. Orton weaves the scenes so the hilarity builds to climax in an even more preposterous and lunatic second act. Plot complications abound and mysteries are uncovered. The innocent are proven guilty and the guilty are shown to be innocent. Such are the pleasant spoils of ambition in a corrupt universe. For irony, Hal’s good, Catholic conscience has remained spotless. He has not seen his mum naked, and he never lied. He’s good to go. We just don’t know where.
The production does not disappoint. It is a pleasure to see the mostly American actors honor this astounding playwright and make him known to another generation of playgoers who can appreciate brilliant farce and black comedy. That said, it must be acknowledged that Orton is uniquely English. Though there is an opaque line between our countries and cultures differentiating America from England, there is a nuanced sensitivity that comes with presenting English cultural and social humor. It is more felt than studied, intuited than practiced. All humor is generic to place, culture, time, range and social consciousness. Very simply, there are some phrases which can fall flat to some ears if not comprehended in the way that the culture normatively means them to be. In this aspect the production’s humor was flattened by our cultural limitations. However, Orton’s words remain true if one has ears to hear them.
Loot is being performed at the Red Bull Theater by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation. George Forbes is the Executive Director; Jesse Berger is the Founding Artistic Director and Evan O’Brient is the Managing Director.
This review first appeared on Blogcritics, at this link: Click Here.