The Man from Washington 

CentralWorks quotes Gogol in a smart, timely comedy.

One of the great Russian plays, Nikolai Gogol's The Inspector General describes a town gripped by panic when word comes that a mysterious functionary is coming to town. The mayor and his cronies have plenty to hide, so they fall over themselves to impress the visitor. What they don't know is that they've got the wrong man; Ivan Khlestakov is a lowly clerk who shows up at the right time to be fed, bribed, and offered the mayor's daughter's hand. The Inspector General created quite a stir in Russian theater, and may be familiar to American audiences as a 1949 Danny Kaye/Elsa Lanchester vehicle.

Whether Ivan is really the inspector general is just one of the things that's different in CentralWorks' new version, which is set in a gated community near Mendocino. Ringed with razor wire, Safe Harbor is a community of 102 families who trust and look out for each other. Or do they? When the inspector general shows up, the real ties between neighbors — and spouses — are strained. The play centers on a married couple who panic when he arrives, citing homeland security issues as his rationale for invading their lives, living room, and liquor cabinet. The outline is similar to Gogol's, and the names are the same, but the intention is very different. Gogol was addressing corruption; CentralWorks is scratching at the national paranoia about terrorism. But it's funnier than it sounds, especially in scenes where the besieged couple swears an oath of secrecy, or when they try to implicate other families ("What about the couple in 29? She's French.")

Poor Christopher Herold. CentralWorks always seems to use him as a man whose home is invaded by a stranger who tries to seduce his wife. This time he's Anton, Safe Harbor's mayor, and Deborah Fink is Anna, the Realtor who puts people in its homes. They're sickeningly self-satisfied, with their baby vegetables, subtly matched pajamas, and weekly visits from a Latina maid. But there's an intimation of something not quite right. Early on we learn that Anton has dreamt about face-eating rats, a story both strongly reminiscent of George Orwell's dystopic 1984 and culled from Gogol's original, albeit briefly and much less gruesomely.

Into their bliss tumbles Ivan, slyly played by Norman Gee (who also just directed American Limbo over at the Magic). Ivan is dodgy. His coat is rumpled, his hat shapeless, and he claims he has a phone implanted in his ear. He's also much smarter than Ivan Khlestakov, who Gogol described as "dim." He bursts in talking about lebensraum, terrorists, and dung beetles, refusing to answer a single question directly. Crazy or fiendishly clever? Or possibly not even who he implies he is? "The human element is always the weakest link," he reprimands Anton as they discuss Safe Harbor's security setup, and then proves it by effortlessly manipulating the terrified couple with his increasingly odd behavior.

Marked by dry wit and perfect pacing, the CentralWorks Inspector General may bear only a family resemblance to Gogol's comedy, but it's as germane to its time as the original was to prerevolutionary Russia.

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