Arts Listings

‘Inspector General’ at the Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday June 27, 2006

Clad in his mayoral uniform of velour sweats, Anton (Christopher Herold), CEO of gated Safe Harbor on the Mendocino coast, gazes out the window through binoculars, “looking out for people—my job.” To the tune of “The Very Model Of A Modern Major General,” he practices his putting, humming along and wincing extravagantly at each miss. He greets his bubbly wife, Anna (Deborah Fink), and they prepare to celebrate another property sold, with squeals, glib cliches and funny poses. 

Very much the stuff of situation comedy: cloyingly cute, archly mannered 30-somethings at home...though strangely edgy—and that edginess breaks through the mold when they’re unexpectedly visited by The Inspector General. 

Like an urban gumshoe barging into suburbia, a trench-coated fedora’ed figure seems to materialize in the trophy home, bristling with questions and abrupt silences, scribbling down the most banal responses, repeating them and trailing off, inferentially. He finally lets drop he is Ivan (Norman Gee), and that he’s on a National Security mission—the nature of which he of course can’t reveal. 

Central Works has performed a kind of culinary reduction of Gogol’s great farce, turning it into a chamber play in the confines of the Berkeley City Club. But the smaller scale accorded to this update of a sweeping social satire proves to be a pressure cooker that simmers with the physical comedy of unconscious domestic behavior confronted with uncertainty, bringing out all its hidden anxieties and resentments. 

Jan Zvaifler, Central Works co-founder, has directed her counterpart Gary Graves’ new play with close attention to the taut, interwoven timing of the mock suspense and uproarious hysterias as the innocents-at-home break down under scrutiny, while their interogator gets loopier and loopier. It could easily fall into the kind of puerile slapstick it plays off of, but the players ease into their silliness with the confidence of tightwire artists. Naturalizing Gogol’s grotesqueries to a Yuppie idiom, it could also prove a model for how to bring off a piece by Feydeau, or Oscar Wilde. 

Christopher Herold’s portrayal of Anton’s boyish vanity alternates with a self-conscious indignation, while Deb Fink’s face flashes quickly from a beaming countenance to suspicion and hysteria as Anna comes apart. Norman Gee’s playing is more inverted as Ivan shifts unexpectedly from geniality to menace, both tough and con cop bundled up in one, his agenda less mysterious than obtuse. 

The finale’s a bit abrupt and predictable. But Central Works has brought off another unusual adaptation of a classic theme into contemporary terms, taking hook and schtick from otherwise overworked headlines and trite TV fare and making something out of usually unpromising or academic material that proves to be light, meaningful, and very, very funny.