Plays about dying really don’t get any funnier than Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, now getting a rare Broadway revival at the Barrymore Theatre. But getting laughs isn’t all that this piece is about; as the work unspools with wild and sometimes joyful abandon in Neil Armfield’s beautifully calibrated production, it proves both cuttingly topical and surprisingly touching.
The death at hand in this absurdist comedy — possibly Ionesco’s most accessible — is that of King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush), a monarch whose kingdom has gone to rack and ruin. As the play begins, his two queens — imperious first wife Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) and emotionally flamboyant, much-younger second wife Marie (Lauren Ambrose) — bicker furiously about how to inform Berenger of his imminent death, while also bemoaning the gaping crack that has appeared in the wall of the throne room, which scenic designer Dale Ferguson backs with loosely hung seraglio inspired painted canvases that give the production an appropriately circus-like atmosphere. Also on the scene are Juliette (the highly amusing Andrea Martin), maid and nurse to the royal family, an armor-clad Guard (brought to life with sad-sack sweetness by Brian Hutchison) and the palace’s quack doctor (played by William Sadler in a sort of old Vaudevillian manner).
When Berenger finally appears, he’s dressed in pajamas and an especially long fur-trimmed cape, making him less like a regal ruler than an overgrown child who has awakened from a long nap (Ferguson also designed the show’s witty costumes). In some ways, the king’s childishness and the description of the chaos his rule has engendered in his kingdom seems curiously familiar, particularly when the dialogue turns to topics of war and the country’s economy.
Yet, for all its possible modern-day parallels, Exit the King is not really about political commentary. Rather, it’s about the ways in which individuals approach their demise. For Berenger, it’s a gambol of sorts. He cavorts around the stage on his unsteady legs — Rush’s gift for physical comedy is remarkable — all the while haughtily demanding that his death be forestalled because he has not had time to prepare (despite his hundreds of years on earth). As the play progresses, Berenger comes to the realization that the joy of existence is in small day-to-day details rather than larger achievements.
Sarandon, who brings a marvelously cool regal air to the role of Marguerite, softens terrifically during the play’s final moments when the king and first queen are finally alone together and she helps him cast off his final ties to crown and mortality. Ambrose’s deliciously melodramatic turn is the perfect foil to Sarandon’s iciness, often summoning grandiose emotions to hilarious effect.
Armfield’s work is terrifically enhanced by sound designer Russell Goldsmith’s eerie soundscape, John Rodgers’s original music (played by Shane Endsley from a box overlooking the stage) that alternates between majestic blasts of a trumpet and ethereal cadences from various percussion instruments, and Damien Cooper’s consistently playful lighting design.
In the end, watching the play is a bit like riding an emotional roller coaster: peaks of absolute zaniness can be followed by moments of intimate warmth and delicate insight into the human condition. It’s a ride definitely worth taking.