The Inspector General
By Nikolai Gógol
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Produced by Journeymen Theater Ensemble
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
Gógol’s The Inspector General is both a great classic work of 19th century Russian drama and an odd duck. It can be described as anything from a prose comedy to a dramatic satire. In the hands of Journeymen Theater Ensemble, The Inspector General is a comedy of frequently inspired silliness. Yet these comic gains come at a cost, and the resulting laughs may not be enough justification alone for sitting through a long play.
The basic story is straightforward. The play opens with the revelation that a small, backwoods Russian village will be visited by an Inspector General traveling incognito. This throws a shock into the ruling civil servants, most notably City Manager Anton Antonovich Skvoznik-Dmukhanovsky (Scott McCormick). A young dandy already in town at the local inn, Ivan Whippersnapoff (Daniel Eicher), is wrongly assumed to be the feared official. He reaps all of the advantages of the situation, soliciting “loans” and hospitality (including the City Manager’s wife and daughter) before leaving town and leaving them to face the real Inspector General as the curtain falls.
From the open of the play it’s clear that Director Kathleen Ackerly is looking to push every comedic button. The reactions of the corrupt and inept civil servants are over the top, most hilariously in the performances of the slimy head of charities (Jay Hardee) and the frightened head of the schools (Brian McDonald). The large cast is kept moving at a high energy pace utilizing a variety of pieces of comic business and funny props, such as the the invisible dog on a leash and the lengthy feathered boa that is pulled out of a surprising source. Some of the biggest laughs come from the use of modern music to underscore actions on stage or accompany scene changes.
Yet even a comedy needs some grounding in a central character and it is here that the production has its biggest flaw. Scott McCormick’s City Manager is so loud, bellowing for much of the evening, that we never feel much connection to his character. Even in a satire, the central characters need to have some humanity (not necessarily likeability), so the audience can identify more closely with the person exhibiting the vanity, greed, ambition, or other character traits that are being satirized. Similarly, instead of playing Whippershapoff as a naïve and ingenuous young man who takes advantage of the situation with joy, Eicher imbues the character with an offputting malicious glee. Although he’s funny when engaged in pretzel-like contortions with the City Manager’s bug-eyed wife Anna (Katie Atkinson), the comedy lacks any depth. In contrast, Betsy Rosen’s fine performance as the City Manager’s shy and innocent daughter Maria illustrates how it is possible to be funny in a small role while still conveying a well-rounded character.
The satirical effect of the work is also undercut by the silliness. The production lacks what Pushkin called the sad tears behind Gógol’s laughter, and what Gógol himself said was the profound sadness behind the comedy. The production’s satirical force is also undercut by the lack of a strong sense of place (the production is supposed to have a 21st century spin instead of being chained to 19th century Russia). The whimsical multi-colored set removes some the realism from the satire, again aiding the comedy, but at a cost. Perhaps the most illustrative aspect of the evening is the famous group shock ending when the arrival of the actual Inspector General is announced. Instead of using heavily melodramatic underscoring for comedic effect, we end with the Three Stooges closing theme music.
When all you are left with is the comedy, even amped up to the degree provided by this production, you are left with a long evening. While The Inspector General has ample cleverness, much of its charm comes from its characterizations and a dramatic spine, not just the laughs alone. When it comes to laughs, this is a nineteenth century work lacking the rat-a-tat-tat of a modern sitcom. Are there enough laughs in Journeymen’s production of The Inspector General for a sitting of over three hours? It’s a tough call.
Running Time: 3:15 (one intermission)
Where: Church Street Theater, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC
When: Through February 28th. Wed and Thurs at 7:30 PM, Fri and Sat at 8 PM, and Sat and Sun matinees at 2:30 PM