You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Exit the King

"Nothing's abnormal when abnormal has become the new normal," declares Geoffrey Rush, a short distance into his astonishing performance as the dying monarch in "Exit the King."

King Berenger - Geoffrey Rush Queen Marguerite - Susan Sarandon Queen Marie - Lauren Ambrose Juliette - Andrea Martin Doctor - William Sadler Guard - Brian Hutchison

“Nothing’s abnormal when abnormal has become the new normal,” declares Geoffrey Rush, a short distance into his astonishing performance as the dying monarch in “Exit the King.” It’s that state of pervasive uncertainty, in a world thrown into chaos as an empire crumbles, that rescues Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist tragedy from the dusty vaults and infuses it with unexpected currency. But the play’s relevance is secondary to the virtuoso work of its lead actor, who unleashes a dazzling arsenal of mime, clowning and physical techniques to swerve in an instant between comedy and pathos, keeping the audience riveted to him through every hairpin turn.

Rush and director Neil Armfield, who collaborated on the irreverent adaptation of one of Ionesco’s more linear texts, first staged the play in Australia in 2007, building the production around the actor’s specific skill set. Since then, much has changed to render the work more trenchant, notably the exit of an out-of-touch administration, heedless to the wreckage being left in its wake.

While it’s set in an abstract time and place, only someone sleeping through the production would miss the connections. King Berenger is a warmongering, autocratic ruler surrounded by loyalists on one side and self-serving antagonists on the other. His palace is cracked, his kingdom disintegrating, his governmental experts perished, his populace enfeebled and his washing machine pawned to bail out the treasury. Even nature, the planets and time have turned against him. “The frolics are over,” hisses Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), his embittered first wife.

The play has a built-in spoiler right at the start. “You are going to die in an hour and a half,” Marguerite informs her husband. “You are going to die at the end of the play.” That occurs by agonizing degrees as Rush’s petulant, pajama-clad 400-year-old king works through denial, anger, bargaining, accelerated deterioration and reluctant acceptance in an agitated state of Beckettian suspension. Even as he refuses to let go, railing at the loss of his powers, Berenger frets over his legacy, oblivious to the fact that he has driven his empire into the ground.

But it’s the production’s humanism, more than its political parallels, that keeps it compelling. This is above all an existential examination of death, of the terrifying contemplation of the void beyond and the helplessness that comes with sudden loss of physical strength and mental faculties. In his Broadway debut, Rush’s supreme achievement is that he forces us to empathize with such a buffoonish, despotic gargoyle.

Despite the antic tone of much of the performance — full of tumbles and pratfalls, nifty scepter tricks and even a Buster Keaton-esque marching-band dance — there’s an emotional undertow at play, and not just when Rush stops cavorting.

In one especially penetrating passage, he steps off the stage to wander the aisles, his face ashen as he calls to the dead for guidance. In another scene, Berenger’s Marie Antoinette-like condescension is underscored by the desperation of someone clinging enviously to life as he romanticizes the pain, boredom and drudgery of Juliette (Andrea Martin), cleaning woman and registered nurse to Their Majesties.

Considering how aggressively much of the production is pitched toward outlandish comedy, its sorrow creeps up on you as stealthily as the ambient soundscape by Russell Goldsmith and composer John Rodgers.

Not everyone rises to Rush’s level, but Martin’s gift for physical comedy has rarely been better utilized than in her cartoonish characterization. As the purse-lipped court doctor, William Sadler deftly exploits an unpitying vein in the playwright’s humor, while Brian Hutchison clanks around amusingly as an armor-clad guard, bellowing royal decrees. The monologue in which he reveals his soft spot for the king via an unlikely catalog of the monarch’s achievements — everything from splitting the atom to penning the collected works of Shakespeare to inventing the search engine — is strangely touching. “He cut off a few heads. It’s true,” concedes the guard. “It was for national security.”

Berenger’s queens are more uneven. If Lauren Ambrose doesn’t quite have the technique to match Rush’s quicksilver shifts, she’s nonetheless radiant as the adoring second wife who tries to cushion his pain with love. She hurls herself bravely into the spirit of a production that plays everything large, climbing to melodramatic heights without fear of seeming foolish.

With her Marge Simpson hair-tower caged in bling, Sarandon is an arresting ice queen, her back arched and legs akimbo as she looks on coldly, clenching and unclenching her gloved fingers. There are sharp moments in Sarandon’s venomous comments, but authority is lacking. Absent from Broadway since 1972, she maintains her naturalistic screen style in a role that calls for something bolder.

But in the unsettling final scene, in which the rest of the court has literally vaporized, leaving Marguerite alone to coax the now blind and deaf Berenger toward his demise, Sarandon mesmerizes, addressing him like a nurturing mother to a confused child. The scene is made more beautiful still by the final descent into sepulchral gloom of Damien Cooper’s lighting and the lowering of the faded royal curtains and exotic backcloths that drape Dale Ferguson’s effective circus-style set.

From the pompously heralded comic entrances, as Their Majesties stride on with Juliet scurrying behind to manage their unwieldy cloaks (also Ferguson’s nifty handiwork), Armfield establishes the playful tone of a burlesque. But the adapters extract something poignant and troubling from their portrait of a vain, vindictive king who, almost to the end, would sacrifice anyone from the court to prolong his own life. As Berenger’s body systematically shuts down, his last gasp leaves us all staring into the abyss.

Exit the King

Ethel Barrymore Theater; 1,050 seats; $116.50 top

Production: A Stuart Thompson, Robert Fox, Howard Panter, Scott Rudin, Tulchin/Bartner, Jon B. Platt, John Frost, Weinstein Co./Norton Herrick, Michael Edwards & Carole Winter, Daniel Sparrow/Mike Walsh, Shubert Organization presentation, based on a production originally commissioned and produced by Company B and Malthouse Melbourne, of a play in two acts by Eugene Ionesco, adapted by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Armfield.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Dale Ferguson; lighting, Damien Cooper; original music, John Rodgers; sound, Russell Goldsmith; associate producer, Ronnie Planalp; production stage manager, Evan Ensign. Opened March 26, 2009. Reviewed March 24. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN

Cast: King Berenger - Geoffrey Rush Queen Marguerite - Susan Sarandon Queen Marie - Lauren Ambrose Juliette - Andrea Martin Doctor - William Sadler Guard - Brian Hutchison

More Legit

  • Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to

    Paula Vogel Never Expected 'Indecent' to Be This Timely

    When Paula Vogel began writing “Indecent” in 2010, she had no idea how resonant its exploration of immigration woes, anti-Semitism and homophobia in the past century would become in the current political climate. The Tony-nominated play, running until July 7 at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theater, traces the theatrical history of 1907 Yiddish play “God of Vengeance” [...]

  • Bitter Wheat review

    West End Review: John Malkovich in David Mamet's 'Bitter Wheat'

    How soon is too soon? Hardly a year had passed since allegations against Harvey Weinstein were made public before David Mamet announced that his satire on the subject, “Bitter Wheat,” was set to star John Malkovich in the West End. Six months later, we’re sat watching a corpulent, super-rich movie mogul — Barney Fein (cough, [...]

  • Batman Julia Roberts Spike Lee

    Batman, Julia Roberts, Spike Lee Among 2020 Walk of Fame Honorees

    Batman, Julia Roberts and Spike Lee are among the names selected to be inducted into the 2020 Walk of Fame. The full list of honorees was announced by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce’s Walk of Fame Selection Committee via an exclusive livestream by Variety. Chosen from hundreds of nominees during a selection meeting in June, [...]

  • Tracy Letts

    Tracy Letts' Comedy 'The Minutes' to Hit Broadway in 2020

    Playwright Tracy Letts’ comedy “The Minutes” will hit the Broadway stage in Feb. 2020. “The Minutes,” written by actor, producer and playwright Letts, is a comedy taking a look at the current state of American politics through the lens of a small, fictional town called Big Cherry. The play is set in a city council [...]

  • Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer

    Jamie Forshaw Tapped as Executive Producer of MWM Live (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jamie Forshaw has been named executive producer of MWM Live, Variety has learned. The theater veteran most recently served as VP of production for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group. In his new role, he will oversee MWM Live’s slate of stage productions with an emphasis on expanding the division’s work on Broadway. MWM Live [...]

  • A Midsummer Night's Dream review

    London Theater Review: 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

    “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” can be many things. There are earthy “Dreams,” airy “Dreams,” saucy “Dreams” and sweet “Dreams.” It’s Shakespeare’s most malleable play. Nicholas Hytner’s new staging strives to set itself apart, plunging its immersive audience into a festival-style fairy kingdom and casting the ethereal, white-blonde Gwendoline Christie (fresh off “Game of Thrones”) as [...]

  • Audra McDonald Frankie and Johnny

    Listen: How Audra McDonald Faced Her Fear in 'Frankie and Johnny'

    When producers offered Audra McDonald a role in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” opposite Michael Shannon, she immediately said yes. Then she remembered the nude scene. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Hell, yes, there was trepidation,” the Tony-winning actress said on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. “I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content