By Joanna Brady
Take one part Nikolai Gogol, one part Dickens, shake it with a soupcon of Shakespeare and a dash of Mel Brooks, and you’ve got a knee-slapping Christmas cocktail that will keep you laughing into the new year.
The play, Inspecting Carol, now playing at the Waterfront through Jan. 6, was written by Daniel Sullivan for the Seattle Repertory Theater. Sullivan drew on the 19th century play, The Government Inspector penned by Ukranian author Gogol, for inspiration. At its core is the zany tradition of mistaken identity, that stock-in-trade of all classic comedy writers, including Shakespeare and Moliere; and yes, even Mel Brooks.
Gogol’s comedy mercilessly lampooned the corrupt bureaucracy under Tsar Nicholas I.
In his play, having mistaken a well-dressed windbag for a dreaded incognito inspector, the officials of a provincial town bribe and banquet him in order to turn his attention away from the corruption in their administration.
Sullivan’s Inspecting Carol is about a small-town repertory theater going broke and about to be turned down by government funding from the National Endowment of the Arts. There is to be one last performance evaluation on which the fate of the theater rests, with $50,000 at stake.
When Wayne Wellacre, a mysterious stranger played to the hilt by Mathias Malhoff, arrives, the theater actors mistake him for the government inspector and give him a job, kowtowing to him and agreeing to his inane suggestions–even to teasing him with seduction by Zorah (Chrissy Jacobs), the glamorous widowed artistic director of the theater. In reality, he’s just a wannabe actor nebbish, an-out-of-work ham with no talent.
The troupe is going into its fifteenth Christmas season playing A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and is bored to death with it. Hoping to revitalize a play they feel is stale and irrelevant, they decide to make a few changes to it to impress ‘the inspector’ and improve their chances of getting the $50,000. The decision to bring it up-to-date, spearheaded by Larry Vauxhall the Scrooge character, (played by David Black) is made, with input from Wayne, who by now feels very self-important. The slapstick mounts as the phony inspector proposes ever more outrageous changes. And once the script starts to get changed, all the actors put in their two cents.
The situation gets out of hand and the players run amok as the play takes on a life of its own. It soon becomes a comedy of errors, especially when the real inspector arrives. Mayhem erupts and the troupe loses it with a wild final scene that brings the house down, literally.
All the actors of this large cast perform brilliantly, but David Black must be singled out as extraordinary. The very talented Director Murphy Davis directs them in what must be like herding cats. And Michael Boyer’s amazing set and stagecraft become the stars in the final minutes of the play.
Inspecting Carol is not nuanced or subtle. Sullivan has used the Dickens classic as a backdrop for this high-spirited comedy as a satiric jab at the way the arts must scratch out a way to survive. If you’re the only person left on the planet who doesn’t know A Christmas Carol, you may have trouble following the hilarity of the situations. But for the rest of us, it’s a funny play. Go see it. It could become your favorite Christmas cocktail!
Inspecting Carol at the Waterfront Playhouse runs through January 6, 2018. Located at Mallory Square. For more information and tickets go to WaterfrontPlayhouse.org or call 305 294-5015.
(Joanna Brady is a Key West writer, author of the historical novel of Key West, The Woman at the Light, published by St. Martin’s Press)