Figures that one of the few Shakespeare in the Park productions I’ve missed in twenty years is one of the few that’ll still be talked about in twenty years. But the Julius Caesar that played to daily headlines struck me as an insult — to Julius Caesar, a far wiser and more competent leader than the one being stabbed to death in Central Park. Leave a legend alone.
But I did have fun with a Trump-era revival of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, a Red Bull Theater production that’s about to settle in for a summer run at New World Stages. This delightful adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher (Compleat Female Stage Beauty) doesn’t openly parody our dismal president and his inept administration — you get the parallel soon enough, as the graft, bickering, and overall incompetence of backwater Russia in the distant past immediately translate to our own undrained swamp. The premise is simple: Corrupt town fathers are terrified to learn that a no-nonsense government inspector has been spotted. Enter Ivan (Michael Urie), who is rakish, vainglorious, and far from the usual visiting bureaucrat. That’s good news for the townspeople, who find in him a kindred spirit, and an easy mark. But Ivan, a self-deluded “writer” of sorts, is not a government inspector, and, being eminently corruptible, turns the situation to his advantage when he figures out that he’s being played.
Somehow I think Gogol’s play was softened when it became The Inspector General, a musical comedy vehicle for Danny Kaye in 1949. And I suspect Hatcher has heightened the material into semi-slapstick, or lowered it — “this wasn’t that funny when we saw it at the Moscow Art Theatre,” I overheard one patron saying as we exited. Whatever the case, as directed by Jesse Berger it’s at the perfect temperature, with a matchless Ivan in Urie, a frazzled, frizzy-haired wonder who does a hilarious drunk act in one scene, then turns on the charm for pretty, level-headed, and suspicious Marya (Talene Monahon) as the manipulations begin. Marya’s father, the blustering mayor, is played to a fine exasperation by Michael McGrath, just one of several top-flight clowns assembled for one of the best ensembles in town.
Every comedy should come equipped with a role for the great Mary Testa, and this one does — fawning lasciviously over the new arrival, in a succession of costume designer Tilly Grimes’ gowns, she’s terrific. Earning some of the biggest laughs is Arnie Burton, a go-to funnyman since The 39 Steps hit Broadway a decade ago. He plays two roles (Ivan’s tart-tongued servant, and the town’s snooping postmaster) so seamlessly, and so inventively, I thought I was watching two actors until I checked the program. I’m not sure how this take on The Government Inspector might play at the Moscow Art Theatre, but this 200-year-old could not be any more sprightly than it is Off Broadway.
Martyna Majok’s Cost of Living, at Manhattan Theatre Club, has one unforgettable scene. Floating from job to job, Jess (Jolly Abraham) finds what she hope will be more sustained employment caring for John (Gregg Mozgala), a wealthy graduate student with cerebral palsy. At one point, she bathes him, and watching the process unfold — discreetly, and unsentimentally, under Jo Bonney’s direction — proves riveting. It’s rare to see actual work performed onstage, particularly this very human kind of labor, and everyone involved with this scene earns applause.
There’s an agenda at play here — Jess has begun to have feelings for John, who is a bit of an asshole, and proudly so. (Majok isn’t sentimental about the disabled, either.) Their story is paralleled by that of a more combustible couple, Ani (Katy Sullivan), who has lost her legs and is mostly paralyzed since an accident, and her patient ex-husband Eddie (Victor Williams). He bathes her, too, in a more tender sequence accompanied by Satie playing in the background. It ends differently (like Ani, Sullivan, whose thick local accent perks up the pre-show announcements, doesn’t seem a Satie kind of gal) and leads to the fusion of the play’s two halves.
An awkward fusion, I must add. Ani and John may be disabled (as are the performers), but Jess, afflicted by her own choices and an unforgiving marketplace, is truly down and out, and Eddie is just barely scraping by. The providers are in need, too. The denouement isn’t terribly convincing, but I can’t blame Majok for wanting to give her characters wiggle room amidst so much societal decline. Cost of Living reminds us that dignity is a human right, one in constant need of care.