by Ben Ellentuck
Ionesco’s absurdist masterpiece Exit the King is back on Broadway and not a moment too soon.
Geoffrey Rush stars as the narcissistic King Berenger, whose ineptitude has left his kingdom on the brink of ruin. In his circus of a royal court—where actors sport more makeup than Michael Jackson—the King’s first wife, Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) and his conniving doctor/executioner/astronomer/advisor (William Sadler) try to convince him that he and his kingdom will die in 90 minutes, and therefore must relinquish control of the kingdom and himself.
As King Berenger, Rush is an absolutely hysterical diva. Reminiscent of a tipsy grandmother, he delivers a tour-de-force performance of comedic and poignant proportions. Sarandon shines in a affecting turn at the end of the evening, helping Berenger truly evolve into the next stage of his existence. Lauren Ambrose (of Six Feet Under fame) provides a satirical contrast with her thanklessly melodramatic Queen Marie, the King’s significantly younger second wife (and main love interest). Neil Armfield’s direction is solid, building nicely towards a disturbing conclusion.
At the end of the evening, there is one man who rises above all others. Known as the father of the Theatre of the Absurd, Ionesco reigns supreme. The new translation (by Rush and Armfield) is adequate, despite some cheap twenty-first century references. Ionesco’s surreal masterpiece is too good for such unnecessary distractions. His material floats fluidly between comedy and tragedy, often occupying a snug space encompassing both territories. Ionesco shows a human side to our leaders that is just as relevant today as it was in 1962, the year the play first premiered. The conflicts are riveting because the characters' desires are simple and crystal clear. Ionesco's perfect grounding allows him flexibility with structure, language and theatricality—all while keeping us thoroughly engaged.
The end result? Go see it for yourself!
How to see the show: $26.50 student rush tickets with ID • Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Visit www.exitthekingonbroadway.com for schedule and more information.