April 4, 2009

The Magnificent Reentry of "Exit the King"

Have you ever played the truth-or-consequences style game where you drink a lot and then say which celebrities you’d kick your spouse out of bed to sleep with? Regardless of your sexual orientation, you’re supposed to choose both a man and a woman. My guy-of-choice depends on my mood but I always pick the same woman: Susan Sarandon. So I was really excited about the prospect of seeing her in the new revival of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King.

Sarandon doesn’t turn me on just because she’s a great looking dame and a gifted actor but because she’s also smart, politically courageous, and refreshingly honest. Exit the King marks her return to Broadway for the first time in 37 years and right from the start, she’s been open about her nervousness and about how, as rehearsals went on, she worried whether she was up to the challenge. (Click here to see the interview she gave New York magazine.) Reading all that just made me want to love her more.

Frankly, I was more excited about seeing Sarandon than I was about seeing the play. It was cool to be into the theater of the absurd when I was studying theater in college but, with the exception of Waiting for Godot, plays by writers like Beckett and Ionesco usually left me cold. So imagine my surprise when I found myself shrugging at Sarandon but head-over-heels crazy about the play and totally gaga about her co-star Geoffrey Rush.

The exit in Exit the King is death. At the beginning of the play, Sarandon, playing the monarch’s first wife, tells us that he’s going to die by the end of the show. But even though he is 400 years old, the king doesn’t want to die and the play is a chronicle of his attempts to resist his foretold fate.

Death has been stalking Broadway this season. Everywhere you turn, spirits from the afterworld are haunting this one (the ex-wife in Blithe Spirit,
the mom in Billy Elliot, the bookstore owner in The Story of My Life.) Meanwhile, the live characters are wrestling with the inevitability of their mortality (the musicologist in 33 Variations, the matriarch in Dividing the Estate). Still none of those dealings with death display more pathos or panache than Rush does in this sensational Broadway debut.

Rush and his friend and fellow Aussie, director Neil Armfield developed the production and even wrote the adaptation of Ionesco’s original French script. Their translation is fresh and surprisingly funny. But it’s the staging that enchanted me. The play is presented in commedia dell’arte style with clown-face makeup, oversized costumes, live music (a trumpeter plays fanfares and serenades) and hearty doses of slapstick.

Laughing at death, Armfield and Rush seem to say, may be the only weapon we have against it. I’ve read that Ionesco wouldn’t like this approach to his work. I obviously don’t know enough about him to know if that’s true but I do know that I loved it.

I especially loved Rush who literally tries to outrace death or, in limber-limbed displays of acrobatics, to tumble free of it. His antics are matched by the scene-stealing Andrea Martin’s as the palace’s severely overworked servant. Lauren Ambrose is lovely and appropriately sincere as the king’s devoted younger wife. And William Sadler and Brian Hutchinson
are pitch perfect as the king’s doctor and his sole remaining guard.

Alas, only Sarandon seems off-key. Her role is, admittedly, the most difficult. She is the voice of reason, which, in this case, means the voice of doom. While the other characters are engaging in all kinds of macabre tomfoolery, she is the show’s straight man. And a nervous one on the night my friend Mary Anne and I saw the show.

“Did you see her hands?” Mary Anne asked when the lights came o
n for intermission. “I know,” the man sitting on the other side of me leaned over to say before I could answer. “She kept opening and closing them like she was trying to grab hold of her lines.” Her voice, particularly in the early scenes, also carried less well than her castmates’s. But Sarandon comes into her own, and Rush achieves true dramatic greatness, in the show’s remarkable closing scene. I won’t tell you what happens but I will say those final moments are to die for.

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