Review: `The Government Inspector’

Mar 27

Opened March 26, 2008 at American Conservatory Theater

The town’s mayor (Graham Beckel, seated) succumbs to a sneezing fit while accepting the congratulations of the town council (from left: Delia MacDougall, Andrew Hurteau, Dan Hiatt, and Rod Gnapp) on the engagement of his daughter to Khlestakov.
Photos by Kevin Berne

Fantastic cast makes Gogol’s Government worth inspecting

Let me just say that I did not really enjoy American Conservatory Theater’s production of The Government Inspector, a Nikolai Gogol farce in a 2005 adaptation by Alistair Beaton.

The play itself does not have the farcical flair of Feydeau, nor does it have the satiric bite or vivacity of Moliere. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, this desperately unfunny play is long and in need of heavy-duty editing.

But I will say that where director Carey Perloff’s production stumbles in its attempts at exaggerated slapstick buffoonery, it excels in personality.

The ACT stage is virtually crammed with local talent, and these great actors all find ways to rise above the clunkiness of the play, which is about a remote Russian town filled with the usual pettiness and corruption. When word goes out that a government inspector has arrived, everyone panics, fearing their corruptness and pettiness will be discovered. No one, not even Russian peasants, it seems, wants the jig to be up.

Assuming that a gentleman at the inn — who is unable to pay his bill — is the inspector, everyone goes straight into ass-kissing mode, even though the broke man is really just a broke, wanna-be aristocrat trapped in a dingy inn with an unpaid bill, no food and his man servant.

That’s really about it for plot — mistaken identity, pettiness and corruption stretched into nearly three hours of so-called comedy that feels forced most of the time.

Here’s what I enjoyed in the play:

Amanda Sykes (above left) as the mayor’s daughter and Sharon Lockwood (above right) as the mayor’s wife. The two women are nasty and catty with each other and practically knock each other over to win the attention of the so-called inspector. Like so much of the production, the actors push too hard, but Sykes and Lockwood are a good team, and they have some great moments.

Another dynamic duo is Gregory Wallace (above left), who plays the man mistaken for the inspector, and Jud Williford (above right), the man servant who seems to be the only reasonably sane person in the play. Wallace is at his very best — desperate, snooty and more funny than annoying, which is no small feat in a production this manic.

The production itself is visually interesting, though the dreariness of the play works against it. Erik Flatmo’s set — barely standing facades, peeling wallpaper, general mayhem amid snow flurries — features a central performing platform that raises and lowers at center stage, and a great deal of over-crowded action takes place in this small space. The ever-reliable Beaver Bauer contributes costumes reminiscent of Russian toys, all whirling and nesting and full of rich textures and cartoonish poverty.

At a certain point in the show, watching such local laugh masters as Dan Hiatt (as the magistrate), Delia MacDougall (as the director of education), Anthony Fusco (as the drunk postmaster) and Joan Mankin and Geoff Hoyle (as the ginger-haired duo Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky respectively), I couldn’t help wishing they’d stop doing the Gogol and start doing something that would let them unleash their comic genius.

The Government Inspector continues through April 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $17-$82. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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