Lauren Ambrose, Geoffrey Rush, William Sadler (background) and Susan Sarandon in Exit the King
Photo: Joan Marcus
When it comes to theatre of the absurd, you either love it or you hate it. I happen to be closer to the latter. Hate is too strong a word but the nonsensical language of that style of theater is foreign and unappreciated by many theatre-goers. One must separate one's like or dislike of a certain style of theatre when viewing a production as brilliant as Exit the King. Geoffrey Rush gives a stand-out performance as King Berenger, a performance that it is hard to imagine will not receive a Tony Award nomination if not a Tony win. In his Broadway debut the Oscar winner gives what must be a physically exhausting performance that would best a man half his age. This production, smartly directed by Neil Armfield, who also co-wrote the adaptation of this production along with Mr. Rush, maintains a breakneck pace that keeps the production moving forward as we watch this everyman coming to terms with his own mortality.
He is guided along the way by his eldest wife, Queen Marguerite (in a monochromatic and flat performance by Susan Sarandon), a cold and cynical woman who is the voice of reality as she announces to the King "You are going to die in an hour and a half. You are going to die at the end of the play." For most of the play Ms. Sarandon is set dressing. It is the final scene of the play where she is given an opportunity to shine as she guides the king through letting go and dying.
Rounding out this cast of vaudevillian characters are The Guard, played by Brian Hutchison, a sort of dude-ish one-man Greek chorus. He has a knack for re-declarations of the most obvious sort. William Sadler is the doctor, Andrea Martin his overworked and blunt maid and Lauren Ambrose as his adoring second wife, Queen Marie. Ms. Martin gives a madcap performance as the maid scampering across the stage attending to the whim of two queens and a dying king. Lauren Ambrose as the emotional Queen Marie is the perfect counterpoint to Sarandon's sardonic Queen Marguerite as she fawns over the king attempting to get him to hold on to life.
In Exit the King, Eugene Ionesco's third play in his Berenger trilogy (the other two being The Killer and Rhinocéros) we watch as the 400-year old king moves through the dying process . We spend two and a half hours watching this dying process as it plays out before us in fits and starts. While Mr. Rush gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance, I ultimately found myself wishing that the man would just lay down and die already. That said, if absurd theatre is your bag, by all means go. You will be treated to a first rate production with an excellent cast.
In other reviews...
In his review for the NY Times, Ben Brantley raved about the Exit the King calling it "brutally funny" and eloquently summarizes Mr. Rush's character saying "Mr. Rush is not only more entertaining than the usual never-say-die bogeyman but also more frightening. That’s not because you’re worried that the 400-year-old Berenger might come after you in your dreams, Freddy Krueger style; it’s because you know that the seedy, power-addled egomaniac onstage — who’s working overtime to dodge his own mortality — is, quite simply, you." Read the entire review
Michael Kuchwara for the Associated Press says "We haven't seen a star turn like this in quite a while." He continued "Geoffrey Rush, making his Broadway debut, manages a mesmerizing high-wire act of balancing outrageous comedy and overwhelming tragedy in a fascinating revival of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist "Exit the King." Read the entire review
In his review in the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout warns potential audience members "See it by all means, but don't expect to go home grinning." He says of the piece "Exit the King is the real thing, a full-fledged absurdist satire whose unlikely presence on Broadway can be explained only by the fact that Susan Sarandon is in the cast." Read the entire review
Linda Winer in New York Newsday says "This inspired revival of Eugene Ionesco's seldom-seen 1962 absurdist tragicomedy has been conceived as the unlikely love child of a fractured fairy tale and King Lear." Of XXX direction she continues "director Neil Armfield's exquisitely unhinged production has proffered Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose and Andrea Martin in a silly symphony of mortality panic." Read the entire review