Exit the King

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

KING OF PAIN Rush faces a tragical journey.

Photo: Joan Marcus

Elisabeth Kbler-Ross, with her five famous stages of grief, had nothing on Eugne Ionesco. In Exit the King, the playwright’s absurdist 1962 comedy of mortality and solipsism, the dying King Berenger careens through dozens of behavioral way stations en route to his own disintegration. And every twist gets its turn in Neil Armfield’s handsome new Broadway revival, thanks to the Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, who plays the evanescent king with unflagging virtuosity, blurring the lines between tragedian and clown. He commands the audience completely.

In extrapolation of Louis XIV’s famous declaration, “L’etat, c’est moi,” the death of the ruler entails the collapse of his empire, whose outrageous decline is a running joke. Berenger has only a small retinue: two contrasting queens (Sarandon and Ambrose, neither quite comfortable with the show’s broad style), a knight (Brian Hutchison), a doctor (William Sadler) and a maid (the superb Andrea Martin). But then, Berenger is a king in symbolic stature only; he is a stand-in for the royal self-centeredness of the everyman whose home is his castle.

Ionesco’s play—which Rush and Armfield have adapted and tartly updated—is a metatheatrical metaphor. Some may find it overextended; written today, it would probably be half an hour shorter. Still, it is a pleasure to see bona fide ideas on Broadway, and to admire the way the playwright uses theater itself as a trope for his themes. Exit the King suggests that every man is a world unto himself, and all the world’s a stage—eventually, a stage of grief.—Adam Feldman

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Ethel Barrymore Theatre. By Eugne Ionesco. Dir. Neil Armfield. With Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose. 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.