All Hopped Up on Russian Rye

I could tell jokes about Tsarist Russians all day long, so I’ll just leave it to the folks at the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust Stage, where a new adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s 19th century comedy The Government Inspector runs through August 24. Local playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (The Falls and the screenplays for Stage Beauty and Casanova) lends his trademark humor to the madcap proceedings where, unfortunately, the parts do not add up to a whole.

The heads of a small Russian village are horrified to learn that a government inspector is coming to make a thorough visit to the town. Even worse, he may be in disguise. Mayor Anton Antonovich (Peter Michael Goetz) knows his town isn’t an exemplary place – the hospital was built the same size as its model, the school principal is frightened of his teachers and geese are being raised in the courtroom jury box – so he proclaims that the government inspector must be found and dealt with. A case of mistaken identity leads them to Ivan Alexandreyevich Hlestakov (Broadway vet Hunter Foster), a down-on-his-luck-and-finances card player on his way to visit his father. He unexpectedly finds himself the object of everyone’s affections, getting bribes thrown at him from the men of the town and much, much more from the women.

The sardonic examinations of greed and corruption are balanced with as many sex jokes and innuendos as you would imagine in a Russian play. No doubt taking many liberties with the source material, Hatcher and director Joe Dowling have crafted several moments of uproarious hilarity. It really is a pity that the comedy isn’t consistent; when the jokes fall, they fall hard and the play creeps to a crawling pace. The cast is a worthy ensemble, but they cannot help when audiences are thrown yet another joke about what Russian alcohol is made of or a talk about seduction shortly before the most repulsive woman walks in. As a result, the play is only truly captivating when certain performers are on stage. When they’re gone, you’re in for the long haul.

In the central role, Foster gives an admirable performance. Another unfortunate mistake is making Foster’s character one of the least interesting in the play. Ivan is a typical, likable doofus in way over his head, but when Foster gets the chance to reach beyond that, he is truly hilarious. Whether it be showcasing his physical abilities when drunk or composing an impromptu poem/love song to his supposed sweetheart Marya (think "aria" or… "operaria"), he shows a wide array of comic talents that are suppressed more often than not. In having Ivan attempting to make himself seem like a gentleman, we get a character that is too typically bumbling, especially when the audience knows the performer is capable of so much more.

As the mayor’s wife, veteran performer Sally Wingert easily walks away with the show. Decked out in a set of increasingly ridiculous dresses, Wingert completely inhabits the role of lusty, jaded and ignored woman and runs. She manages to take every line, no matter how cliché, and turn it into comedic gold; while butchering French for comic effect is hardly a new joke, Wingert’s crass and brash destruction of the language has audiences splitting their sides. Kris L. Nelson and Lee Mark Nelson do a twisted, lispy riff on Tweedledee and Tweedledum to great effect. And in a brief but memorable role, Jim Lichtscheidl is hilarious as a laidback, honest and gossipy postman.

The other members of the cast are more or less successful in their shtick: Raye Birk, Wayne A. Evenson and Stephen Yoakam are funnier in their neurotic town head roles; Maggie Chestovich less so as the mayor’s daughter, playing her as the stereotypical whiny teenager without any real innovation. But they play off each other well. Sparks fly in some cases; Foster’s secret trysts with Wingert and Chestovich are among the high points of the play, even if the circumstances surrounding their meetings are no more than afterthoughts.

Set in what may be the brightest and most colorful version of Russia ever, Dowling directs the production with the intent to make everything fast and snappy. From the plywood cutout set by John Arnone, to the cartoonish costumes by Ann Hould-Ward, everyone involved seems determined to make audiences forget ever thinking that Russians are dark and depressing. With transitions offset by a raucous ensemble of villagers and a turntable on the stage (why not?), everything flows quickly. Until, of course, the jokes fall flat and the pace drops dead.

The Government Inspector is far from tedious in the end. It is always entertaining and frequently laugh-inducing. Just not as consistently riotous as it should be. A likable cast with more than a few comic gems is enough to pull the production out of any rut and make even the lamest of jokes admirable. And in a show where making a good, lasting impression is the most important thing, the folks at the Guthrie have certainly accomplished their mission.