Exit the King, Eugene Ionesco’s farcical meditation on death, dying, and the follies of empire is not your typical Broadway fare. But it’s not hard to fathom why producers would be willing to risk their shekels on a splashy new production, a version of which already was a hit in Australia. That reason would be the show’s star (and co-adaptor), Geoffrey Rush. Though the stage is rather sparse of scenery, as befits this Theater of the Absurd classic, the Oscar-winning actor chomps through much of it by the curtain call.
His King Berenger is a petulant tyrant who learns in the first scene of his imminent death, news that generates opposite reactions from his two wives: Young Queen Marie (a solid though slightly too broad Lauren Ambrose) responds with shock, while the more practical Queen Marguerite (a crisply regal Susan Sarandon) is more resigned. As he faces up to his mortality and staggers through the stages of grief, Berenger also receives reports of the rapid decay of his kingdom and even of his palace, whose servants goose the on-stage philosophizing with vaudevillian slapstick. (Andrea Martin is a particular treat as the nimble maid, Juliette.)
Rush and his director/co-adaptor Neil Armfield have updated Ionesco’s play with enough topical references to underscore their allegorical indictment of outgoing regime leaders (though names like George W. Bush and Tony Blair are never directly invoked). When Berenger inquires why the palace doesn’t have a washing machine, Marguerite notes, ”We had to pawn it to bail out the Treasury.” (No doubt au courant references like these helped lure Sarandon back to Broadway for the first time in 37 years.) The cast is uniformly strong, but this is Rush’s show. He commands the stage from the opening to his final spotlighted death throes, toggling easily between tragedy and comedy, not to mention between high comedy and low. At one point, he collapses with his back bent over a stool, precariously close to toppling onto his head, and then struggles to roll his royal scepter down his legs to his feet so that its weight will tip him upright again. It’s a small bit of mime, wonderfully executed — not only does it grab your attention, it also remains absolutely true to the character of this wobbly, impossibly vain monarch. Of such small moments are great performances are made. B+