PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Exit the King Rushing the Death Scene

By Harry Haun
27 Mar 2009

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Lauren Ambrose, a Juliet and an Ophelia in recent Shakespeares in the Park, plays the younger and more idealistic queen who sincerely cares about the king's demise.

"It felt like a high-wire act," she admitted. "I thought, 'What are we doing here?' It was a strange rehearsal process. I felt like I had to catch up because the director and Geoffrey had worked on it already, and they had done the play already, and they had translated it, so they were very close to it. I went to the original text, with my French dictionary, and looked at all the different translations and tried to just familiarize myself and get ready to wiggle down into the language. Very strange, because of this faux classical style. So I was thinking of those opening nights in Shakespeare in the Park of trying to use the language and the swiftness of thought and all the things that go with that kind of Shakespearean work."

William Sadler plays the king's physician with a con-artist voice as if he was hustling snake oil. "I was actually going for Frank Morgan from 'The Wizard of Oz,'" he confessed. "This was great fun and challenging, because Ionesco didn't write this like a realistic play. These are figments of the king's imagination. It seems like a vaudeville act more than a play. You come out and do the shtick, then all of a sudden it turns serious or sad or it gets beautiful for a second that's where I think his genius is."

The goofy guard attending the king's needs and repeating his pronouncements is played by Brian Hutchison with a freshly shaved head that makes him look like Conrad John Shuck. "I just saw him last night. We did a play together at Playwrights Horizons, People Be Heard by Quincy Long, about four or five years ago. I saw him and said, 'I'm bald. I can play Daddy Warbucks now. I can play all your parts!' He's a good guy."

And does Andrea Martin, who plays the overworked maid of the court, throw him the same ball every night? "No," he replied, "and that's what's so great about her in rehearsal. Watching her process she's such a Broadway animal, in the best way. She tries more new stuff all the time. Her process of getting from here to there is really amazing thing to watch in the room. She's wonderful."

Martin, no slouch in the physical-comedy department, pooh-poohed that gift which is generously and hysterically displayed here. "I guess it comes easily," she shrugged. "It's not a hard thing to do. It's a bizarre thing, really. I have a lot of energy. I guess I'm flexible so it's not like I have to think about it."

If you think she's doing Ann B. Davis here, you'd be wrong. "I've always loved Giulietta Masina, Fellini's wife she was in 'La Strada' and 'Nights of Cabiria' and it makes me feel good to think of her as I'm doing this character. She was always the clown.

"This is the first time I've done a play on Broadway. I've only done musicals before."

Ionesco, who would be a century old this year, is an acquired taste that is becoming hard to acquire. Only four of his plays have ever made it to Broadway Rhinoceros (originally with a hard-charging, Tony-winning Zero Mostel), The Chairs, The Lesson and Exit the King) but all of them except The Lesson have been back for seconds.

Stuart Thompson, who 11 years ago produced the revival of The Chairs with Tony nominees Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan, is lead producer of the new Exit the King and, not so incidentally, an Aussie, like Rush. It was simple chauvinism at work, Thompson recalled: "Geoffrey's agent said, 'Geoffrey wants to do this play,' so I had a meeting with Geoffrey, flew to Australia, saw it and just fell in love with it."

The Australian faction was conspicuously in attendance on opening night, starting with The Boy From Oz himself, Hugh Jackman, and his actress-director wife, Deborra-Lee Furness. Also: Patricia Connoly, who was in the play's previous Broadway incarnation helmed by Ellis Raab, and she remembered it well: "Richard Easton played the king, Eva Le Gallienne played Marguerite, I played the young queen, I think Nicky Martin was the guard and Pamela Payton-Wright was the maid. Oh, I just loved seeing it again. It all started to come back to me."

The next thing on her plate she characterized as a modest meal: "I'm just doing a little piece here for the New York Theatre Ballet Company, playing Agnes De Mille."

The other Banger sister, Goldie Hawn, was glamorously in attendance with Kurt Russell, as was Sarandon's Tim Robbins. And Tony winner Julie White was there at the behest of Hutchinson, who was her husband recently in MTC's From Up Here.

White just switched coasts again, back to New York, and will resume her stage career in September, playing a stage manager in The Understudy at the Laura Pels. But first: "I'm finally getting my degree at Fordham. I was 14 credits short because I got pregnant with my daughter. She's 22 now, and we'll graduate on the same day. My graduation is here, and hers is in L.A. so I'll skip mine and go see her graduate."

The after-party's other Julie Taymor admitted she's "very excited" these days, poised to pounce with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Rehearsal starts in October.

Another theatrical visionary, Bob Crowley, was in town to pick up a Sharaff Award March 27. The set designer of Carousel, The Capeman, The Invention of Love and Aida was being honored for his "Lifetime Achievement," a bit prematurely, it was suggested. "I know. You didn't know, did you? I'm actually 75," he teased. Meanwhile, his life and work go on: "I'm working with Helen Mirren on a production of Phadre at the National, which Nick Hytner's directing, in London, and then I'm doing Andrew Lloyd Webber's follow-up to Phantom of the Opera."

Miranda Richardson, the British actress, happened to be in town, too. She said she was "rehearsing a play in New York with Wallace Shawn that's going to London."

Actor-director Bob Balaban, a frequent first-nighter these days, just finished a film called "Howl," about the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same name, starring James Franco, Jeff Daniels and Mary-Louise Parker. "I play Judge Clayton Horn, who presided over the obscenity trial over the poem, 'Howl.' You would think I'd be a villain, but I'm a good guy a good Republican judge."

Patch Darragh, last seen at the Laura Pels in Crimes of the Heart, said that he was "doing a pilot for NBC called 'Mercies,' and then I will be going up to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie at the Long Wharf with Judy Ivey and Josh Charles."

Also present and accounted for: Brooks Ashmanskas, Jill Clayburgh, Shawn Elliott, Jason Butler Harner, David Hyde-Pierce, Bill Irwin, David Lindsay-Abaire, Terrence McNally, Jason Moore, Donna Murphy, Chris Noth, Todd Oldham, Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Adam Rapp, John Patrick Shanley, Dan Sullivan and Elizabeth Waterston.