This has to be the liveliest death on record. Never mind those scary figures of legend who kept on fighting with bullets, poisons and knives in their guts: Rasputin, Blackbeard, that psychopath from the “Halloween” movies. When it comes to refusing to shuffle off the old mortal coil, these men are all small time compared to his moribund majesty King Berenger, whose last hours on earth have been brought to life like a fire-trailing comet by Geoffrey Rush.
Let me add that in the title role of Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” which opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Neil Armfield’s brutally funny revival, Mr. Rush is not only more entertaining than the usual never-say-die bogeyman but also more frightening. That’s not because you’re worried that the 400-year-old Berenger might come after you in your dreams, Freddy Krueger style; it’s because you know that the seedy, power-addled egomaniac onstage — who’s working overtime to dodge his own mortality — is, quite simply, you.
When “Exit the King” was first staged on Broadway in 1968 (for a repertory run of 47 performances), it prompted the critic Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, to call it Ionesco’s “incomparably greatest work.” Yet “Exit the King” has seldom been seen in these parts during the last four decades, and it has never secured the place on academic syllabuses of this Romanian-born French playwright’s more famous exercises in Absurdism, like “The Bald Soprano” and “Rhinoceros.”
You can understand why producers would flinch at the idea of a play that spends more than two hours telling theatergoers they are going to die, like it or not. This is the United States, where people still half-believe in the possibility of immortality through plastic surgery, gym memberships and green tea. Who expects to have a good time at what might be described as a vaudeville version of the teachings of the death guru Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?
But the lingering winter of 2009 — the centenary year, as it happens, of Ionesco’s birth — may be exactly the moment for New York to receive Ionesco’s king, and not just because of the presence of the Oscar-winning stars, Mr. Rush and Susan Sarandon. The world described when the play begins should, after all, sound awfully familiar to Americans these days.
The once-mighty country over which Berenger rules has become a sadly shrunken empire, drained of its power and youth by expensive wars and neglect of natural resources. The sun has lost 50 to 75 percent of its strength, an immense sinkhole threatens to swallow up pretty much everything that remains, and the royal palace is a royal shambles. The days of balls and lavish expenditure are gone. Or as Queen Marguerite (Ms. Sarandon) puts it: “The party’s over. People know that but carry on as if they didn’t.”
I don’t need to belabor contemporary parallels. The spry new English adaptation by Mr. Armfield and Mr. Rush makes it easy for you to draw your own topical comparisons. (Of course there are such occasional rib nudges as having an enthusiastic guard, played by Brian Hutchison, deliver a tribute to king and country in a voice that summons George W. Bush.) And much of the knowing pleasure of the early scenes comes from the grim, hyperbolic examples of just how bad things have gotten in Berenger’s realm. Example: At the beginning of his reign the population was “nine thousand million”; now there are merely “a thousand old people,” and “they’re dying as we speak.”
These dire statistics are delivered with panache by Ms. Sarandon, Mr. Hutchison, William Sadler (as the court physician, astrologer and executioner) and Andrea Martin as the only remaining, and hence ridiculously overworked, palace maid. (Lauren Ambrose’s Queen Marie, the king’s second, younger, wife, is still too idealistic to join in this cynical exchange.) And you can sense the audience warming with relief to the gallows humor, which is not so different from what is heard in late-night television monologues.
There are even times, in the opening moments, when you could imagine yourself at a music hall in last-gasp Berlin in the early 1930s, what with those rotting tapestries, a cast in German Expressionist makeup and fairy-tale-gone-rancid costumes. (Dale Ferguson is the tone-perfect set and costume designer.) Mr. Rush — in red-striped pajamas, heavy robe and Kokoschkaesque face — suggests a Mother Goose monarch reconceived by Tim Burton. Let’s gather at the cabaret, old chum, and chuckle balefully over our woes.
But the genius of the show’s presentation — derived from a 2007 production by Mr. Armfield with Mr. Rush in Melbourne, Australia — is in its use of rowdy comic grotesquerie to lure us into raw and very real emotional territory. The surface joke of the king who wouldn’t die, having already wrecked his country beyond repair, shades into a psychic X-ray of Everyman, refusing to believe in the death that is about to claim him. (Berenger is Ionesco’s name for his universal hero in other plays, including “Rhinoceros.”)
To this end “Exit the King” makes better use of what are usually thought of as Brechtian devices than any Brecht production I’ve seen in New York in years. The characters are introduced in a rag-tag royal procession, like the traveling players from “Hamlet.”
Actors break the fourth wall (appropriately, since the palace walls are said to be cracking by the minute) to let us know how much longer the play — i.e., the king’s life — has to run. The lines between audience and stage (the palace trumpeter is spotlighted in a theater box) are drawn and erased, like chalk in the rain, a process beautifully enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting.
But instead of distancing us from the exaggerated cartoon types onstage, these devices pull us into greater intimacy with them. Mr. Rush’s knockout portrayal has some of the weary, contemptuous razzle-dazzle of Laurence Olivier’s great music-hall persona in “The Entertainer.” Politics is showbiz and pageantry, for sure — we all know that. (And this production makes inspired slapstick use of weighty props of state like scepters and trailing robes.) What “Exit the King,” and Mr. Rush’s portrait, insist is that we acknowledge how much we transform our own lives into flashy, death-denying star turns.
If it’s Mr. Rush who leads us to the abyss, the rest of the cast follows him in style. Despite an overabundance of sententious lines, each ensemble member undergoes a sly transformation from symbolic gargoyle to the kind of person anyone will recognize who has spent time at a deathbed.
Every performance evokes a different style — from the superb Ms. Martin’s addled, ratlike servant to the American dude-ishness of Mr. Hutchison’s soldier and the sideshow hucksterism of Mr. Sadler’s doctor. Yet somehow the disparities work, feeding our sense of the loneliness implicit in the very idea of individuality. Ms. Ambrose’s overripe emotionalism as the young queen who still loves her husband is the perfect counterpoint to the acerbic pragmatism in Ms. Sarandon’s sustained coolness (an approach that pays off in Marguerite’s overlong concluding monologue).
Mr. Rush’s ecstatically mannered performance, which uses every old trouper trick in the trunk, at first makes you think of the venerable actor-managers of yore, like Donald Wolfit. But as he struts and frets his two hours on the stage, which include a hilariously spastic promenade, he seems to shed his skin along with the king’s accouterments.
Watching him is like staring at one of Goya’s more savage caricatures. At first you’re amused, fascinated and repelled. But the longer you look, the more human the image becomes until finally, you realize with a shudder, it has turned into a mirror.