Friday, March 27, 2009

Exit the King


By Eugene Ionesco. Translated by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Armfield. At the Barrymore Theatre. (CLOSED)

With the exceptions of Resident Grouch John Simon (whose only concern in reviewing the play is whether or not the long-deceased author would've liked it) and Michael Feingold (who simply loathed it), critics go ga-ga for Exit the King. Reviewers are particularly taken with Geoffrey Rush's "star turn," which apparently is almost indescribably awesome. Reservations arise about the other cast members (some reviewers dislike Ambrose, others Susan Sarandon) and about the updated translation, which some feel is too contemporary and topical by half. NOTE: The grade, a B+, is largely the result of John Simon and Michael Feingold's pans; the most frequently occuring grade for this show is an A-.

The New York Observer A+
(John Helipern) Put simply, Mr. Rush is giving one of the greatest virtuoso performances I’ve ever seen... Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon (Queen Marguerite) and Lauren Ambrose (playing Marie, the other Queen) are among the strong ensemble in Neil Armfield’s splendid, near childlike production. But all eyes are forgivably drawn to Mr. Rush’s bravura King. The Australian actor (also an Academy Award winner) is a born clown. He has the face and mask of one. Peeking out from his gold paper crown, his hair is revealed as startled tufts of red—until it turns white. (Shakespeare’s clowns were traditionally red-headed.)

Backstage A+
(Erik Haagensen) Rush is sensational as the king, showing a peerless gift for physical comedy and a tremendous facility at shifting emotional gears. As Berenger finally faces death, the actor makes the nearly catatonic king's inability to do anything except repeat the word me both a devastating indictment and a pitiable truth. As Queen Marguerite, Susan Sarandon finds both the humor and the humanity in the queen's implacable desire to do what must be done. Her final scene, in which she serenely guides the dying king to his end, is mesmerizing. Lauren Ambrose is all selfish youth and beauty as Queen Marie, locating her character's needy core to excellent comic and tragic effect. Andrea Martin's Chaplinesque maidservant is comedic perfection, always fixedly upbeat even when describing the drudgeries of her life, with every emotion visible in its purest form on her perpetually wide-eyed face. William Sadler's doctor is an appropriate apparatchik, and Brian Hutchison is both touching and funny as a guard who desperately wants to please.

The New Yorker A
(Hilton Als) Brilliantly directed by Neil Armfield, “Exit the King” introduces us to the major players as they stride across the stage, waving at the audience, as if greeting the paparazzi. After fulfilling their public duty to be adored, they retreat into their home, where we catch glimpses of the characters beneath their calcified public masks. There is no pretense to naturalism. Armfield wants us to know, straight off, that the play that Ionesco wrote—lovingly and well translated for this production by Armfield and Rush—is as much about performance as anything else. Ionesco once said that plays were not literature; he meant his to be, in a sense, springboards for the actors’ imaginations. The actors here, kicking aside their too long trains on a tapestry-strung stage (the thoughtful set and costumes, by Dale Ferguson, use dark hues and deep reds that bring to mind Julian Schnabel’s paintings), inhabit the space as though they were simultaneously inside and outside it. They love Ionesco’s language, but they know that the Master didn’t want constrictive realistic readings of it. So they perform little pirouettes around his concrete poetry. Rush and Ambrose are especially astonishing at this. While Ionesco’s plays have a tendency to overdescribe the action as it’s happening, Ambrose and Rush convey the absurdity of talking this way, in such hyper-theatricalized speech. They’re interested in exposing the rigor behind the presentation, and in deflating the ridiculous notion that we ever present a true self to the world. Still, they make the audience comfortable with this entirely unexpected Broadway fare.

TheaterMania A
(Andy Propst) Getting laughs isn't all that this piece is about; as the work unspools with wild and sometimes joyful abandon in Neil Armfield's beautifully calibrated production, it proves both cuttingly topical and surprisingly touching.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) 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...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.”)

USA Today A
(Elysa Gardner) Rush has a grand time surveying the depths of comedy and pathos offered by Berenger. It's a flamboyant, hilariously physical performance that becomes profoundly moving as the king struggles to come to terms with his fate, and reveals the childlike fear and uncertainty underlying his narcissism. As Berenger's coldly pragmatic first wife, Sarandon is his foil and his antagonist, chiding him in a flat, acidic voice; later, her earthy delivery becomes more soothing, suggesting a possibility for redemption. Since Exit is an ensemble piece, the other characters are equally crucial, and Armfield culls excellent work from all. Lauren Ambrose makes a wonderfully warped ingénue as the hyper-emotional Marie, who represents Berenger's need for sensual gratification, while Andrea Martin brings her own sure-footed wackiness to the nurse/servant Juliette.

(Michael Kuchwara) Geoffrey Rush, making his Broadway debut, manages a mesmerizing high-wire act of balancing outrageous comedy and overwhelming tragedy in a fascinating revival of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist Exit the King... The actor is a total chameleon, part vaudeville comic, part circus clown, part overwrought tragedian, in his larger-than-life portrayal of a monarch who's dying while his kingdom collapses around him -- dying, but refusing to go quietly. ''I will die when I feel like it,'' he sniffs royally.

The Guardian A-
(Alexis Soloski) Long live Geoffrey Rush, who plays the mortal monarch in Eugène Ionesco's tragedy-cum-farce Exit the King. Making his Broadway debut, Rush's King Berenger I enters in a swirl of velvet and ermine, swinging his arms, shaking his legs, barking out orders. Two hours later, he ends the show deaf, dumb and blind, bereft of life and breath. In a performance that effectively rejuvenates the 1962 play, Rush renders this rapid deterioration both credible and compelling, lending a merely passable script the sheen of genius.

NYTheatre A-
(Martin Denton) Overall this is a triumphant presentation. Armfield's staging is jokey and fourth-wall bashing without feeling postmodernly ironic; there is heart in this play, everywhere. Dale Ferguson's deliberately overdone sets and costumes are of a piece with the work's sensibility. Damien Cooper's lighting, Russell Goldsmith's sound design, and John Rogers's music (some of which is performed live—Shane Endsley and Scott Harrell alternate as trumpeter) support the world of the piece still further.

TalkinBroadway A-
(Matthew Murray) His Majesty has probably never seen the last chapter of his own story, written by Eugene Ionesco and titled Exit the King, portrayed with the tenacity, insanity, and astringent poignancy brought to it by the haunting new revival that just opened at the Barrymore... The other performers aren’t quite in Sarandon and Rush’s league, but they’re all good: Hutchison never oversells the guard’s broken-record shtick, Sadler is relatively reserved as the doctor, Martin never lets her gold-plated clownishness overwhelm Juliette, and Ambrose is perfectly aged whine as the empty bodice who's always mistaken lust for love. She's the first to dissolve when Berenger's memories fade - she never understood her place, but she's destined to take it nonetheless.

Lighting and Sound America A-
(David Barbour) Under Armfield's supremely deft and creative direction, this blackly comic clown show exists in a deeply disorienting universe all its own, an effect that is aided by a most adept design team. Dale Ferguson's setting wraps the action in fabric walls depicting a surreal procession of images from antiquity. Inside this tentlike structure are Berenger's massive gilded throne and a tiny red couch for the others, with bare lightbulbs dangling over the stage, a testament to the kingdom's growing poverty. Ferguson's costumes, including miles of ermine and towering gold crowns, are expert caricatures of royal finery. Damien Cooper's lighting switches from broad white washes to sinister footlight effects to the encroaching darkness of the climax, creeping in like fog. Russell Goldsmith's layered, complex sound design includes fanfares, marches, live Miles Davis-style trumpet solos, and an unsettling low hum that may signal the approach of death by inertia.

Wall St. Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Only two weak links mar this sterling revival. The first one, I'm sorry to say, is Ms. Sarandon, whose acting is flat and uninteresting. The second is the translation, a new English-language version by Messrs. Armfield and Rush that has been modernized, vulgarized and generally tarted up. It works, I guess, but I doubt that Ionesco would have approved of the cheaper jokes. On the other hand, I'm sure that he would have relished the rest of this production, whose rip-snorting vitality makes his vision of the dark at the end of the tunnel a bit easier to take -- if not to accept. See it by all means, but don't expect to go home grinning.

(Matt Windman) Though the script itself isn’t too strong, the cast’s energy level and comic timing carries the production until it reaches a serious peak. The production design might be described as graveyard grotesque, with the actors looking like zombies in white makeup. Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the crazed, ridiculous king cannot be missed by anyone who appreciates great stage acting. What’s most incredible is how his performance carefully evolves throughout the play. At first, he is extremely flamboyant and showy, covering the stage with his long purple robe. But he soon sinks into crisis mode and starts really freaking out.

Newday A-
(Linda Winer) It hurts to have to report that Sarandon, for all her intelligence, is not ideally cast as the discarded queen who prods and guides the king to the abyss. The actress, so powerful Off-Broadway in the 1982 Extremities, has a glittery, thug-like elegance. But she is too naturalistic and lacks the big stylized technique needed to carry the theme of mortality, much less a parable for the decline of Western civilization. Ambrose - best known as Claire in "Six Feet Under" but also cherished as Juliet in Central Park - has a radiant sense of humor and a rhapsodic soul as the young queen, clinging to the idea she can love the life back into the rapidly aging king. Martin is adorably outlandish as court "cleaning woman and registered nurse," assigned to monitor the arrangements of the endless trains on Dale Ferguson's ermine-trimmed gowns.

Variety A-
(David Rooney) "Nothing's abnormal when abnormal has become the new normal," declares Geoffrey Rush, a short distance into his astonishing performance as the dying monarch in "Exit the King." It's that state of pervasive uncertainty, in a world thrown into chaos as an empire crumbles, that rescues Eugene Ionesco's 1962 absurdist tragedy from the dusty vaults and infuses it with unexpected currency. But the play's relevance is secondary to the virtuoso work of its lead actor, who unleashes a dazzling arsenal of mime, clowning and physical techniques to swerve in an instant between comedy and pathos, keeping the audience riveted to him through every hairpin turn...Berenger's queens are more uneven. If Lauren Ambrose doesn't quite have the technique to match Rush's quicksilver shifts, she's nonetheless radiant as the adoring second wife who tries to cushion his pain with love. She hurls herself bravely into the spirit of a production that plays everything large, climbing to melodramatic heights without fear of seeming foolish. With her Marge Simpson hair-tower caged in bling, Sarandon is an arresting ice queen, her back arched and legs akimbo as she looks on coldly, clenching and unclenching her gloved fingers. There are sharp moments in Sarandon's venomous comments, but authority is lacking.

NY1 A-
(Roma Torre) Rush did the contemporary-sounding translation along with director Neil Armfield, seizing on Ionesco's manic energy. Their surrealist spin serves the play exceptionally well, evoking both slapstick and poignance. As Marguerite, Susan Sarandon seems slightly out of her element. While everyone's shooting for classical farce, she's relatively subdued. Her best scene is at the end, soberly guiding the king to his final exit...Some people will no doubt find Exit The King frustrating and too long. I found this fine production both funny and moving, much like life itself.

Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) There is little in the way of plot in the play, which at two hours and 20 minutes goes on rather too long to sustain its slender concept. But along the way it offers a series of pungent comic and not so comic riffs on a multitude of subjects, both political and personal, that register with full force in this adaptation by Rush and director Neil Armfield. The dialogue has been amusingly updated, with the king not only credited with such achievements as writing "The Iliad" and inventing the airplane but also with designing the first search engine and the "qwerty" keyboard. And a line about having to pawn the palace washing machine to "bail out the treasury" naturally receives a tumultuous laugh.

NYPost B+
(Elizabeth Vincentelli) Guiding us through denial, resignation and the childish senility that precedes the ultimate oblivion, Rush is never less than virtuosic without lapsing into showboating. In the first act, for instance, he rolls a craggy Lear, a cocky man-child and a capricious master of the universe into one increasingly decrepit package. His Berenger is at once theatrically stylized and all too human. It's a delicate balance, and one the rest of Neil Armfield's production doesn't nail quite as precisely. Partly it's due to Armfield's timidity -- he just doesn't go far enough with the second act's metaphysical chaos -- and partly to some of the actors' difficulty with suggesting ambiguity.

TimeOut B+
(Adam Feldman) 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.

NY Daily News B
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The adaptation by Armfield and Rush is a lot like the trains adorning the royal robes (by Dale Ferguson, who also did the tapestry-filled set). It swirls playfully and lickety-split in the first half, but it drags repeatedly and gets tangled after intermission. Even so, this unusual, seldom-seen play, in its first Broadway revival since 1968, is worthy of an audience.

(Stephanie Zacharek) Exit the King explores the tenacity with which we poor, miserable human beings cling to life. Ionesco’s conclusion, after two acts’ worth of wordplay and slapstick, with numerous expository philosophical ramblings tucked in among the somersaults, is that we’re powerless and we’d better get used to it. At best, that’s old news; at worst, it’s tiresome, condescending finger-wagging. But even when the material groans under its alleged weightiness, Rush—who, with Armfield, translated this version—keeps pumping energy into it. His performance is muscular and subtle at once: His King Berenger can barely move a step forward without becoming entangled in his own robes, a marvelous physical metaphor for humankind’s tendency to trip itself up. Andrea Martin, as royal servant Juliette, helps keep the proceedings aloft as well, getting a kingdom’s worth of laughs out of the word stew.

CurtainUp B
(Simon Saltzman) Exit the King is essentially a one-idea, one-act play stretched to full-length, like its dying 400 year-old title character, ordained to test the patience of the living. Encouraged by the tedium and redundancy of the play's message, I made a conscious effort to appreciate its sophomoric excesses in the light of what was deemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, the existentially driven drivel can only be as digestible as the actors who are assigned to it. Aren't we lucky that a stellar cast is almost successful in making this grimly comical play tolerable and at times a lot of fun?

Bloomberg D
(John Simon) For Broadway, Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 farce stars Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon and a solid American cast, engaging in all manner of audience-pleasing, circus-like behavior. Admittedly, such clowning would not have pleased Ionesco. Yes, this is an absurdist play, but the absurdity is in the situations and the dialogue. Except for one or two brief scenes, the author wanted straight playing, letting the bizarre shine through. This staging by Neil Armfield, who with Rush adapted the play from a literal translation, is like hearing a joke meant to be delivered deadpan, instead presented by a giggling comic.

Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) Ionesco's Exit the King (1962)... in which a predictable event slowly takes its course, will outlive them all because it tackles the ultimate event (death), tests it against all possible modes of defiance, and opens it out to reveal all possible ramifications. Thanks to this intellectual sturdiness, the play will even survive the brash, noisy mess that Neil Armfield's production has made of it, abetted by star and co-translator Geoffrey Rush, who's way too busy chewing scenery to give the title role any cohesive life.

NYO A+ 14; BS A+ 14; TNY A 13; TM A 13; AP A 13; USA A 13; NYT A 13;TG A- 12; LSA A- 12; TB A- 12; NYT A- 12; WSJ A- 12; AMNY A- 12; ND A- 12; V A- 12; NY1 A- 12; HR A- 12; NYP B+ 11; TONY B+ 11; NYM B 10; NYDN B 10; CU B 10; BB D 4 VV F 1; TOTAL = 270 /24= 11.25 (B+) MODE = A-


Schuler Douglass said...

John Simon is always a wet blanket. He should turn to being a food critic since all his taste is in his mouth.

Unknown said...

I have seen this show many times! I find it very well done! I think it is perfect and the cast is brilliant!