Police Governor With his stagings of “Saint Joan” last season and this past fall’s “Timon of Athens,” director (and National Actors Theater artistic adviser) Michael Langham breathed some life into Tony Randall’s young company. But in his second outing with the group this season, Langham takes the troupe, and Randall, back into familiar territory: “The Government Inspector” is a deadly pedestrian account of a satire that time, as Liviu Ciulei demonstrated at Circle in the Square in 1978 , has not faded since its 1836 premiere.
The failure is even more compelling given the sad spectacle of Randall himself in the title role, a St. Petersburg clerk mistaken for a government inspector by the cretinous leaders of a provincial outpost, who shower the willing impostor with bribes, booty and bombast. With his summer-stock mannerisms and painfully forced bravado, Randall’s Khlestakov is not so much a petit bureaucrat on the luckiest day of his life as a lecherous old buffoon — Pantalone or Dottore — out of commedia dell’arte.
Only once do star, company and director seem to harmonize, and that is in the play’s darkest moment. It occurs in Act Two, when the townsfolk who have suffered most from their leaders’ greed and abuse converge on Khlestakov’s perch at the police governor’s house. He already has listened to some shopkeepers’ complaints and boasted that he would address their concerns. But the sight of this multitude moving in on him like a wretched force of nature sickens him; he orders the police to beat them away.
The rest, however, is sleep-inducing at best. Unlike his Jazz Age “Timon,” Langham here takes a conservative tack, providing a provincial look and atmosphere to echo the play’s parochial setting. It’s clearest in Douglas Stein’s touring rep-style set (softly and aptly lighted by Richard Nelson), in which various rooms, draped but visible upstage, roll forward when needed. Lewis Brown’s period costumes complete the effect, though none of it is what you’d call innovative.
In the leading role of the police governor, Peter Michael Goetz is a beefy, blustery, hairy Russian bear who lacks menace, if not cynicism (“This whole town is like a snowball full of turds,” he barks). As his wife, a woman whose pretensions, jealousy and obsequiousness make her unbearable, Lainie Kazan is unbearable for entirely different reasons, having wandered in, one imagines, from a revival of “Abie’s Irish Rose.” Nancy Hower is equally insufferable and anachronistic as their whiny daughter.
Michael Stuhlbarg has a nice turn as the nerdy postmaster, as do Jack Ryland as the corrupt judge and Michael Lombard as the brutal charities commissioner. As the school superintendent, Nicholas Kepros, in a very strange black wig, is otherwise his familiar dour, jowly self.
Derek Smith and Jefrey Alan Chandler are droll as Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky, the nattering gossips who set the whole episode in motion. But the best performance belongs to David Patrick Kelly, who plays Khlestakov’s beleaguered valet Osip with great comic verve — hilariously put-upon, one moment, gleefully on the make the next.
Randall has announced his intention to cast himself in comic roles for which he feels suited. With every performance he’s imposed upon the company, however, he’s demonstrated poor judgment and an outdated acting style. His reality is in sorry conflict with his dream, and one will inevitably give way to the other. Which succeeds — the vain performer who refuses to give up the spotlight or the determined impresario with the vision to build a classical rep company — seems entirely up to him.