Death scenes are tricky in the theater, especially when they go on for close to two and a half hours. Ersatz heartbreak is so easily replaced with genuine impatience.
Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is one long death scene, and under Patrick Murphy’s lethargic direction, this absurdist classic about a dying king who refuses to expire on cue inspires not so much existential contemplation as dire thoughts of murder. So die, already!
As the kingdom around them crumbles, Queen Marguerite (Molly Bryant) coaxes the King (John C. Reilly) to his natural termination, while the loving Queen Marie (Evie Peck) begs him to hang on for old time’s sake. Ionesco wanted his tragicomedy to be performed as a Punch and Judy show, which would seemingly indicate a certain speed of delivery and — no pun intended — execution. Early on, the realist Marguerite says, “We haven’t the time to take our time,” and promises that the king will be dead in 90 minutes. Half an hour later, she gives us an update: “In one hour and 24 minutes, you’re going to die.” For the audience at the Actors’ Gang Theatre, this time lag presents a genuine existential dilemma, albeit not the one Ionesco must have had in mind. “Exit the King,” which is often performed in one act, gets an intermission this time out. The weary will use it wisely.
Some talented actors have been assembled here, although they may as well be performing in different productions given the huge playing space at the Actors’ Gang Theatre. Ionesco borrowed heavily from classic comedies of the early American cinema, and there’s a reason why so many of those farces and screwballers were set in the cramped quarters of trains, ships and hotel rooms. It’s that Punch and Judy thing again. (But let it be said, with regard to word-play, this playwright is no S. J. Perelman.)
As the sentimentalist queen, Evie Peck is appropriately simpering; later on, she achieves genuine poignance in her remembrance of things past. Ezra Buzzington’s droll drag turn as Juliette the maid provides occasional bursts of much-needed energy. Jason Reed and Michael Rivkin, in their comic bits as the Guard and the Doctor, respectively, are effective, if isolated, from the general proceedings. If only live theater came with fast-forward control.
Regarding its two leads, the production scores and misfires. John C. Reilly’s king, who rules over a country that is “shrunk, all scrunched up,” begins as an impeached Bill Clinton and ends up like a doddering Ronald Reagan talking about his pet cat. On the subject of death, he knows which side of the funeral to attend: “It is better to miss one’s friends than to missoneself.” Throughout, Reilly is at his most comically touching whenever he’s making perfect nonsense.
Molly Bryant is lovely to look at and, under more fortunate circumstances, must be a fine actress. But she remains seriously miscast in the role of Queen Marguerite. As the play’s moral force, she simply lacks any real force. It’s like putting Nicole Kidman, whom she resembles, into a role that begs for Kathy Bates. In age and appearance, too little separates her queen from that of Peck’s.
Set designer Steve Mitchell provides the aforementioned basketball court, punctuated with a few pieces of worn-out contempo living room furniture. On a more classic note, Alix Hester’s costumes borrow from a “Lion in Winter” production somewhere. Stephen Hodges is responsible for the musical direction and sound effects, which emanate from behind the audience, creating the odd effect of being in competition with the actors, who are occasionally drowned out by all the noise.