You may know the etymology of "politics." The word combines the Greek "poli," meaning "many," with "tics," which are blood-sucking insects.
I love that joke.
The Inspector General, by Nicolai Gogol, takes this bitter witticism and stretches it to two hours. Gogol's play envisions a small town where every single official is corrupt, the infrastructure teeters on collapse, and even the mayoral desk is awash in bribe money. City councilors are perfectly happy to run their municipality into the ground, until they hear rumors that a secret government agent is investigating their dubious progress.
They're so zealous to please the government inspector -- and grease his palm -- that they don't realize they're catering to the wrong man. The "inspector" is really just some young dropout named Buttermilk, who nobly accepts all their dirty money and sucks face with the mayor's daughter. Buttermilk is confused, because he's being treated like someone of importance, but he falls comfortably into the role of Beltway playboy. Seriously, why look a gift horse in the mouth?
Carnegie Mellon's School of Drama revives the Gogol classic, a play as true today as in 1836. But playwright Michael M. Chemers has "adapted" Gogol's original script in the loosest sense: Instead of Czarist Russia, the setting is now a Midwestern town named "Clevebourg." Chemers' updated characters are addicted to purely modern habits: The mayor plays video games, his daughter "tweets" all day, the chief of police puffs reefer, and the communications director steals credit-card numbers from hacked e-mails. Chemers keeps the plot and better dialogue intact, but he embellishes the story with insane slapstick and cesspools of dirty phrases. Anna Karenina this is not.
The new Inspector General is hilarious, and no stereotype is spared: There's a knock-kneed superintendent of schools, a Mormon liquor salesman, a spunky Asian computer wiz, a white-suited Southern judge, two identical wonks named Bob, a goth chick with a cell-phone, and a politician's lusty wife. In short, all the actors relish their parts, and director Jed Allen Harris must be delighted by the talents of his all-student cast. Even Brian T. Grego's set, with its tall doors and mosaic of picture frames, is a masterpiece of stagecraft.
If this Inspector General has a weakness, it's the nihilism of its story. Between scenes, Harris plays newsclips and soundbites, filling the darkened Philip Chosky Theater with real-world ugliness. Near the end, the mayor (played by a brilliantly sleazy Peter Moses) turns to the audience and whispers, "Why are you laughing? The joke's on you." It's a startling question, because today, 174 years after Gogol's play premiered, the "tics" still draw blood.
The Inspector General continues through Sat., Feb. 27. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama