An Autocracy of Dunces: Czarist Russia takes a madcap turn.
An Autocracy of Dunces: Czarist Russia takes a madcap turn.

Fifteen minutes after the scheduled curtain time on opening night of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new production of the venerable, oft-adapted Russian satire The Government Inspector, Artistic Director Michael Kahn told the audience cramped into the Lansburgh Theatre lobby why the house hadn’t opened yet: The stage’s revolver mechanism, which is supposed to spin in a circle to enable quick scene changes, was on the blink. A few minutes later, he reappeared to say he was buying everyone a drink to make up for the delay. Finally, like the apostle Peter, Kahn spoke up a third time to announce the start of the show. Heroic stagehands would use the honest toil of their legs and backs to spin the stage manually at the start of Scene 2, when the lavishly furnished governor’s quarters becomes a more modest room at an inn. This they did, to applause and cheers.

It was the highlight of the evening.

The Government Inspector was a groundbreaking comedy when it appeared in 1836, roughly the midpoint of the Russian Empire. Inspired by a real-life experience of Gogol’s friend and mentor Alexander Pushkin, it imagined a remote province full of corrupt officials, craven merchants, and lascivious women, all of whom mistake a broke, dissolute bureaucrat for a covert inspector from St. Petersberg. He’s puzzled by their largesse but only too happy to take their bribes and their flattery. Funny stuff on the page, even if its unrelentingly pessimistic view of human nature becomes depressing if you’re allowed to dwell on it.

This production, directed by Kahn, offers ample opportunity for dwelling. It’s as stiff and confining and needlessly ornamented as the frock coats and gowns its cast is made to wear. Naturally, a show-delaying set snafu invites consideration of whether such ornate scenery is required. But the fancy digs, by James Noone, and those costumes, by Murell Horton, feel essential, if only to try to disguise the absence of any fresh seasoning for this porridge. It’s wacky. It’s zany. There are antics. Hijinks are dutifully depicted, many of them of the popular “madcap” strain. It just isn’t all that—what’s the word?—funny.

It’s ironic that a play about a town scurrying to hide its malfeasance is itself a misallocation of precious resources: a half-dozen of the region’s most reliable actors, none of whom look like they’re having any fun at all. Rick Foucheux is the town’s crooked mayor; Nancy Robinette, his bored wife. Sarah Marshall plays a hunchback, when she isn’t walking around on her knees to imitate a dwarf. What, after all, is funnier than a very short person? Floyd King does make an impression as a postman who takes a casual approach to delivering the mail but is steadfast in his devotion to reading it. Lawrence Redmond and Craig Wallace, both men of enormous versatility and skill, vanish into the wallpaper in their small roles as town officials. And if there’s a reason Tom Story has only eight or 10 lines in the entire show, which he spends hidden beneath a fright wig and giant goggles, that doesn’t make it any less of a waste. Hlestakov, the wastrel everyone takes for the inspector, is played by Derek Smith, who starred as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s very first production, back in 1986.

The most tragic missed opportunity is the treatment of Hugh Nees and Harry A. Winter as a duo of low social standing. They’re dressed as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. As a running gag, characters conflate them or confuse them throughout, and they speak in lisps. In one interlude, they corner Hlestakov, and one begs him to lend his bastard son Hlestakov’s surname; the other asks that Hlestakov simply mention his name when he returns to the capital. These two buffoons are marginalized, but an approving word from Hlestakov could give them a seat at society’s table. The emotional gravity of this scene should contrast sharply with the weightlessness surrounding it. Alas, the comedy feels so leaden that the seriousness of the moment barely registers.

It’s a mystery why time-honored comic tropes sometimes elicit laughs and other times groans. Lisps and physical incongruities and hoary jokes about bad food and loose women are sometimes funny. This show gets the mixture wrong. It isn’t awful—how could it be, given the the wattage of talent involved? But it’s a pork-barrel production. Cut its funding and you’d never miss it.