“Exit the King” features a brilliant Geoffrey Rush in cosmic joke about mortality

By Lucy Komisar

King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) loves parties. Well, the party’s over. Or about to be, in 90 minutes. The party is life, of course. Avant garde playwright Eugene Ionesco has penned this cosmic joke about mortality,   which finds its best laugh lines in the bravura performance of Rush and some good licks from Andrea Martin as the wide-eyed maid-servant Juliette, whose superb comic talents were only recently seen in Young Frankenstein.

The production gets a tongue-in-cheek staging by Neil Armfield (who with Rush translated the work from the French). He presents this wild farce as if it were totally logical. Suspend belief.

Geoffrey Rush. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Beringer has been informed that, You are going to die in an hour and a half. This king who is about to die is cranky, campy and very narcissistic, clad in an ermine cape (occasionally over striped pajamas) and a hint of a British upper class accent. Rush’s gasps and grimaces are performed with a rubbery face and wonderfully saucy demeanor.

The response on one level is a collection of gags and pratfalls. Crisis and response is absurd. The country is collapsing; the bistros are empty. As his body disintegrates, he is advised to Do Irish dancing; you don’t need your arms.   The main job of the maid (the incomparable Martin) is to jump athletically over the royals’ trains as she dips to untwist them.

In the background is the horror that Beringer has caused. (Bats hang upside down on the tapestry.)   But all he cares about himself. Asked by a wife, Do you love me? he replies, I’ve always loved myself. The new translation includes the line that he pawned the washing machine for the Treasury bailout; it gets appreciative laughter. A guard says, He cut off a few heads. It was for national security. Could this be a political commentary?

Lauren Ambrose, Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Susan Sarandon provides an odd, dry, static interpretation of Queen Marguerite, the King’s first wife. (It’s never explained why he can have two.) Young Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose) in white gown and red curls is obviously the trophy wife, appropriately ditsy, self-involved and utterly unaware of the outside world. Marguerite is aware, but doesn’t seem to care much.

The set is an odd, busy confection with the clutter of a second-hand store and strange wall hangings that create the ambience of a cave. Beringer holds forth on a red cushioned silver and gold metal platform throne. The set and costumes are by Dale Ferguson.

Susan Sarandon, William Sadler, Geoffrey Rush, Lauren Ambrose, Andrea Martin. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The characters, even the doctor and the maid, wear white gloves. (Martin routinely steals the show with her shticks.)

The particular parts seem sometimes to add up to less than the whole. The cloying Marie is a bit tiresome. But Rush’s performance makes you ignore the occasionally forgettable characters who inhabit his world. When he is emoting, we are entranced. All suddenly is believable and a metaphor for our time.

Exit the King. Written by Eugene Ionesco; Translated by Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Neil Armfield; Music by John Rodgers. Ethel Barrymore Theatre,   243 West 47th Street. 212-239-6200. Opened March 26, 2009, Closes June 14, 2009.

Review on NY Theatre-Wire site.

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