June 26, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
If a laugh riot is your idea of a good time at the theatre, but like me you find such experiences few and far between, then there are two shows playing in New York I can recommend to you. One is currently enjoying a run that began when it opened on Broadway last April Fools Day (appropriately enough); the other closed off-Broadway on Saturday night, but had such a successful limited run that it is reopening at a different theatre in a week’s time.
They are respectively the British import The Play That Goes Wrong and the Russian comedy classic The Government Inspector. It doesn’t get much better than these two plays in terms of finding the funny.
Let’s start with The Government Inspector. Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 farce is a show I’ve only seen in one prior production — and that was about forty years ago. For that adaptation, its title was translated to The Inspector General, where it opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on Broadway to generally good reviews. I recall in particular the performances given by the hyperactive Max Wright as the hapless nonentity mistaken for a man of great importance, and as his servant, a droll and deadly funny Tony nominated turn from the great Bob Balaban.
Twenty-five years later, another production, this one titled The Government Inspector came to town courtesy of Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre, a noble, but ill-fated experiment, designed to bring classic plays to Broadway at low prices. I didn’t see any of them, but the late Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News summed up the overall opinion of his colleagues when he wrote about Government Inspector that “Like most NAT productions, Inspector will leave most of the audience wondering why the play was ever revived.” Ouch.
In the current Red Bull Theatre’s adaptation by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, The Government Inspector works like gangbusters (I know, that’s a very dated expression, but in this case, it fits). Staged with the precision every good farce requires, all the actors are on the same page of Jesse Berger’s raucous production. Led by Michael Urie, who theatre audiences will know from his tour de force performance in Jonathan Tolins’ one-man play Buyer and Cellar (and television audiences from his scene-stealing work on Ugly Betty), the company boasts a wonderful troupe of madcap comedy veterans. Arnie Burton, one of the New York theatre’s best farceurs, is double-cast in two roles, each one played with total abandon: the supercilious postmaster of the local village in which the story unfolds, and the surly servant to the unwitting protagonist of the play. Urie is a wonder, physically inhabiting his role in a manner that brought to my mind a combination of Kevin Kline and Martin Short (makes you smile just thinking about it, right?). Having now seen Urie in two very demanding roles, I am psyched for his heading a Broadway revival this fall of Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, which I imagine he will pull off with admirable panache.
The Government Inspector’s plot involves a town filled with corrupt individuals, all of whom are willing to bribe or be bribed for their own nefarious wants and needs. When the Mayor discovers that a government inspector is coming to investigate, they mistakenly take a foppish reprobate for the overseer, and forcefully manipulate him to become their willing stooge. There is much drinking, door slamming, seductions and colossal errors of every kind to ensure madness at every turn. The play is by no means a walk in the park. It requires enormous comedic skill and timing to make it work. And not every joke in Hatcher’s adaptation is a winner. There are a lot of groaners, and some even met by silence at the performance I attended. But when so many are coming at you, not every one needs to be a home run. So what if there are a few foul balls when the assembled cast are batting so many well-executed doubles and triples?
The solid foundation that forms the structure upon which Government Inspector builds its plot is the opposite of how The Play That Goes Wrong is constructed. It makes absolutely no sense — but it doesn’t matter. Farce requires careful plotting (check out how rigorous something like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is, if you don’t think so). The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t a farce — it’s a chaos comedy, and there’s a difference. Farce is all plot, with intricacies that require careful attention, so that when things go awry you’re in on the joke. A comedy of chaos is so convoluted you’re not supposed to get it, let alone follow it. All that’s necessary in this particular piece is to follow the actors (and stagehands) from one blunder to another, each one more preposterous and more death-defying than the next. The pretext is that we are gathered at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway to see the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society do their very best to perform a 1920s murder mystery. Well, forget that. The show is a disaster even before it starts — literally. Get to your seat early as there is a pre-show featuring the stagehands (also actors, obviously) that gets the proceedings off to a hilarious start.
Written by three of its leading actors (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) for the Mischief Theatre in London, which they founded, The Play That Goes Wrong has been running in the West End for three years. The entire company has come to New York to do the show and are as expert a team as one can imagine. There’s no one stand out amongst the cast, but needless to say, the three actors who wrote it perform characterizations tailor-made to their comedic strengths. Much has already been written about its set, which won the Tony for Best Scenic Design for a Play. It deserved it.
The Play That Goes Wrong is scheduled to exit the Lyceum Theatre at the end of the year; The Government Inspector will begin its extended six-week engagement on Wednesday July 5th through Sunday August 20th at New World Stages. If you’re feeling a bit ill of late with all that’s troubling our “new world,” go see them both. After all, laughter is the best medicine.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-HistoricalBroadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book