Eugene Ionesco wrote the bulk of his plays in the 1950s, one right after the other, and in many ways they belong to their time as surely as Jean-Luc Godard's first spate of films belong to the 60s; both artists, too, were interested in the breakdown of language. Though The Bald Soprano is a favorite of amateur acting troupes, and Rhinoceros sometimes rears its head in the theater, Ionesco's plays are more often read than staged. The playwright was part French, part Romanian, and it was the Romanian side that dominated; listen to him closely and you can hear the deadpan, barely comic horror of much of Romanian cinema's so-called new wave, as typified by Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).
As in Lazarescu, Exit the King deals with a slow, steady, helpless march to extinction. Geoffrey Rush, who co-translated Ionesco's text with director Neil Armfield, plays King Berenger, a childlike brute who has reigned over his kingdom for more than 400 years and brought it to bankruptcy and worse. After the king enters, his first wife, Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), informs him that he's going to die, and the play delineates his slack-jawed, quietly desperate reaction to this news: he stalls for time, he pleads, he even does a vaudeville dance of defiance. Then, at the end of the first act, Rush enters the audience, so that we see the ravaged details of the king's swollen clown face. This has the effect of humanizing him; just as a king is preparing to die, an actor leaves the stage and joins the audience, asking for help. Rush doesn't grab for pathos, and he doesn't highlight the king's monstrousness — what he does is lay out the small character flaws of a fairly unexceptional man who has caused great suffering, and the analogy to America's last presidential administration is obvious.
The text of Exit the King has its pedestrian side, particularly at the beginning: the shoehorned-in shout-outs to modern political troubles sit uneasily beside references to splitting the atom. As the king's exhausted servant, Andrea Martin never quite finds the right register, and settles for commedia dell'arte mugging. I kept imagining different actresses as the king's two wives: Sarandon is tart but lacks nuance in her large, thankless role, and Lauren Ambrose is merely loud and pushy as the king's young trophy wife. So it falls to Rush to make the evening work, and he delivers, though it might have been more interesting to start off the play on a note of firmer authority; this king is so depleted and infirm from his first scene that his final descent into childlike nothingness doesn't look or feel as different from his corporal life of power as it should. Still, I couldn't help wishing at times that Rush would pull out all the stops, Peter O'Toole-style. Ionesco's king could be as arrogant and vulnerable as Shakespeare's Richard II, but he doesn't get enough character shading in this resolutely cold production. Dan Callahan