Exit the King

04/29/2009 4:00 AM |

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