tonight and next weekend at the Loeb, 8 p.m.
PLAYS LIKE THE INSPECTOR GENERAL have made mistaken identity and its ramifications a classic comic theme. The dichotomy between appearances and realities usually opens all sorts of possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle irony, and Nikolai Gogol's mid-nineteenth century comedy is no exception.
A hungry young Petersburg dandy. Ivan Alexandrovitch Khlestakov, is holed up in a small-town hotel room, living on credit, and starving, unable to pay his bills, having lost all his money at cards. Meanwhile, the town's mayor receives words that an inspector general, travelling incognito, is to pay a surprise visit to the town, where he will inevitably discover all of the pecadillos and greater sins the administrators have made habitual. The officials mistake the impoverish Khlestakov for the Inspector General, and he is wined, dined, and "lost" money (the officials leading it think that they are bribing him to ignore their corruption). When he decides he must leave temporarily, he is given the best coach and fastest horses in town.
Provided gullibility to the flash of the city is another traditional literary motif, and Gegal exploits it to the hill. The townspeople strain to believe that the vain, petulant, but eminently purchaseable (and therefore not so terrifying after all) dandy is a real inspector general. At the same time Khlestakov screams with fear that these locals are going to incarcerate him in their jail. But Khlestakov and his manservant Osip, are the ones who group the situation and take advantage of the confusion. Eventually, all of the feuding factions are victimized by the liar from the city.
John Rudman is eminently credible in his title role as an inspector general-Petersburg dandy. He has a less and hungry look appropriate to an official in the Russian bureaucracy, but his hunger is for entertainment (or, at one point, food), rather than power, and his foppish manner belies initial impressions. Nourished by the town's mistaken flattery, Khlestakov's age expends as his imperious manner is fed as he deludes himself by the lies he concocts to increase his importance in the eyes of the locals.
NO OTHER FIGURE shows a similar development, and character transformation under the impact of events is not really the major concern of the play. Rather archetypes respond to crisis in a straightforward fashion. Caroline Downey, as the mayor's wife, Anna Andreevna, and Lee Cork as his daughter, Maria Antonovna, act in conventional, highly stylized and artificial unison, play off of each other very nicely, and are a high point in the evening. Yet, they are static, and in the end differ in no particular way from their status at the beginning. Similarly, the mayor, portrayed by Wayne Mitchell, remains unchanged by events. But generally his performance does less to enliven the evening.
The Inspector General is extraordinarily dependent on a mob of minor characters to sharpen it. Throughout the play, dozens of lesser figures, each with a foible, prods the play forward or merely establishes a stereotype. The title figure does not even appear until the second act, the first is spent as the town's officials establish that they are all bastards and vulnerable to even the most superficial housecleaning. The first act doesn't work too well, but it does establish the necessary preliminaries. The act is redeemed from tedium by the performances of two local landowners, Peter Ivanovich Dobchinski (Tom Wright) and Peter Ivanovich Bobchinski (Michael V. Toumanoff). Identically dressed and indistinguishable, they create another minor problem in confused identity.
George Hamlin's direction is tight. Although the play begins slowly, it picks up in the second act, and the remaining five acts move forward with precision. The final tableau scene, requiring most of the cast to freeze in position, 'works:' if it hadn't it would have been a disaster.
At an obvious level The Inspector General is a satire on the czarist government and Russia's corrupt bureaucracy. It appealed to Casr Nicholas for some reason, and he ordered it performed, so Gogol never has any difficulty with the censors. The literary critics of the intelligentsia praised it for its social content, though Gogol minimized that facet of The Inspector General. He attempted to explain the play himself, always a dangerous course for a writer to take in relation to his own production. Vladimir Nabokov commented that this interpretation might well be considered "the kind of deceit that is practiced by a madman."
THE CRITICAL caricaturing of the Inspector General easily extends from politics to provincial Russian society in general. Merchants are ready to bribe the Petersburg dandy, and they wear the beards and traditional dress that Peter the Great had hoped to stamp out some centuries before. The willingness of a mother and a daughter to compete with each other for his charms and the stereotyping of Russian characters--ranging from drunken clerks to free thinking judges--reinforces it.
But the stereotyping becomes so prevalent, and the types grow to be so different, that eventually the richness of the play seems to lie in these border areas. It becomes concerned with the human condition, in a broader context, which is where in some ways the Loeb's production breaks down. Too often the minor asides fail to transcend their immediate surroundings. Their impact develops the situation's comedy, but it does no more than that. Recognizing the more convoluted and profound complications of a comedy without sacrificing its comic aspects, is not the task that George Hamlin sets for himself. But at least he does not sacrifice his play's comic potential. It makes a very pleasant entertainment.