“The Government Inspector” runs through June 24 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd St., redbulltheater.com
Shameless bribery (or rather “unlicensed entrepreneurial spirit”) is an unquestioned way of life for the hapless municipal officials in Jeffrey Hatcher’s freewheeling adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 Russian political satire “The Government Inspector,” which is receiving a big, brash and buoyant Off-Broadway revival by Red Bull Theater with a 14-person cast that includes Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”), Michael McGrath (“Spamalot”) and Mary Testa (“Xanadu”).
A sort of alternative classical theater company, Red Bull has made a niche out of producing rarely-seen historical plays that similar companies won’t dare touch (including the lurid and gory thrillers of the Jacobean era). Although it is a classic Russian drama, “The Government Inspector” has not received a major New York production in years.
Built around a case of mistaken identity, the play focuses on the corrupt mayor of a provincial town (McGrath, in an ego-driven and worked-up vein that brings to mind Max Bialystock of “The Producers”) who learns that an inspector from the capital will be paying a secret visit, causing immediate hysteria. After all, all the local public institutions are in pitifully bad condition (the court, for instance, is “hip high in dung”).
Told that a mysterious young man has been staying at the inn, the mayor and his colleagues conclude that this must be the inspector. In actuality, Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Urie, hyperactive and full of melodramatic poses) is just a penniless, dimwitted nobody.
Until Hlestakov finally skips town at the urging of his elderly servant (Arnie Burton, who also plays a postmaster who reads everyone’s mail), he accepts countless bribes — as well as the romantic overtures of both the mayor’s wife (Testa, gaudy and overeager) and daughter (Talene Monahon, like an angry teen).
As staged by Red Bull artistic director Jesse Berger, this is a high-energy, fast-paced production with gleefully over-the-top performances and door-slamming slapstick comedy. In one inspired gag, Urie (in a drunken stupor) stumbles off the elaborate two-story set (designed by Alexis Distler) and hangs on for dear life.
Hatcher builds upon the play’s plotting with his own one-liners and sly winks to the audience. When the town folk finally realize that they have been fawning over the wrong man like fools, the mayor predicts that “centuries from now they’ll still be laughing at us.” Yes, indeed.