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

By Harry Haun
March 27, 2009

Quite early on into Exit the King, which made its Broadway reentry March 26 at the Barrymore Theatre, the 400-year-old King Berenger is bluntly informed, "You are going to die in an hour and a half. You are going to die at the end of this play."

Long lives the king, it turns out — two hours and 15 minutes of pratfalls and pathos. As artfully executed by "Shine" Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, the death scene of Eugene Ionesco's mad old monarch goes into over-the-top overtime, railing, flailing, falling down, stammering, strutting, posturing, anything to keep from leaving the stage — and life.

It's the Australian's first appearance on Broadway. He chose for his primary queen is a good-luck charm — Susan Sarandon, who, as Best Actress of 1995, handed him his Oscar as Best Actor of 1996. Their only other brush was in the 2002 movie, "The Banger Sisters," in which she struck him with her car. But they became fast friends, and he personally wrote her, inviting her to come aboard as his queen.

He did other writing — pretty much his own ticket to Broadway — co-translating with his director, Neil Armfield, Ionesco's manic antic from the original French and giving it contemporary tweaks. Thing is, Politics of the Absurd has caught up (if not overtaken) Theatre of the Absurd, making Ionesco's madcap capers seem reasonable. In its story of a once-powerful nation reduced to ruins by the ego and ignorance of its ruler, it's not hard to find a Bush Rush running around on stage.

At the Sardi's party that followed the play, Armfield enlarged the target sites beyond George W. to include John Howard and Tony Blair, former prime ministers of Australia and Great Britain. "There's such exhaustion in the world that these people have led us to," Armfield admitted. "Like, Susan has that line '. . . not to mention all the disastrous wars that we've been taken into.' I think that was one of the reasons Susan wanted to play this part. She has been so outraged by the continuing kind of descent through the involvement in Iraq. This has allowed the opportunity to give vivid expression to that exhaustion and outrage."

Another sign of modern times is a line involving the palace washing machine. "That's pure Ionesco: Literally, 'we had to pawn it for the state loan,' so clearly it's a state of trouble. We translated that to 'We had to pawn it for the treasury bailout.' In rehearsal, Susan said, 'I think treasury bailout might be a little too direct. It sounds like we're talking exactly about the kind of problem we have now. Can I change it to 'to bail out the treasury'? and I said, 'Sure.' We did five previews, and it always got a laugh, and I said, 'Just try it the other way.' And she did, and the audience roared. It's that strange thing of rhythm. It's the same idea, but it suddenly hits the right rhythm for the joke."

In a season when much is being made about cutting intermissions, Armfield added one, possibly to give the cast a chance to regroup after the strenuous workout of Act I. "Ionesco wrote it as a one-act play as one continuous sweep, and we considered doing it that way. Geoffrey and I argued about it. My instinct was that it should be one act, but I said, 'But if we do make it two acts, there is a line that Ionesco cut — because we knew what he cut and what he kept — which occurred halfway through the show where he said, 'We're not quite ready. We're not quite there yet, but we know where we're heading.' It seemed like a perfect curtain line so we brought that back in."

Armfield and Rush have been artistic collaborators since 1981. "We haven't counted, but we think we've done about 30 projects together. We've done three other shows where we did the translation, and then we worked on this, and it has been developing all the way through rehearsals up until tonight. I think it was the brazen theatricality that drew us to Exit the King. We read it, and it made us laugh — and the fact that it was throbbing with resonance to the world that we're living in made it quite an urgent play to do."

Rush remembers, as an 11-year-old, the Doomsday clouds that hovered over the world in October of 1962 when Ionesco wrote the play. "He was writing about the Bay of Pigs and the potential holocaust that was there then, and it just seemed so attuned to the nervous energy that we're reading about in our daily newspapers."

The actor attacks his role with a seemingly inexhaustible amount of physical comedy. "I only do it on stage — I would never try that in my own sitting room," he laughed. "There's a great clue in Ionesco's script where he just says, 'The king keeps falling over,' and I thought, 'This is one of the key images for all the great philosophical and ecological and spiritual and burlesque routines that he writes into the play.' The fact that the king is physically unstable, I think, is a terribly interesting clown idea.

"I had a really fantastic time, but last night — at the end of the two shows, the Wednesday matinee and the evening — I had almost zero voice. My vocal chords were just at their tested limits, but I looked after myself and went off to an acupuncturist."

According her Playbill bio, this is Sarandon's first Broadway outing in 37 years when she was in An Evening With Richard Nixon and . . . , essaying seven different roles (among them Tricia Nixon, Martha Mitchell and Jessamyn West). She did appear in the play Extremities, memorably fending off a male attacker, "but that was Off-Broadway, and there wasn't so much pressure."

Stage acting, she said, didn't come back to her easily. "Also, it was just so extreme and really a character that's not anything like me. It was a very different type of performance, and the presentation of it was so theatrical, so complicated. I've done so many small-cast, naturalistic things, and I didn't realize going out of my comfort zone how uncomfortable it would actually be. It was very trying. The stage now seems hugely different because in 1972 nobody knew who I was so I wasn't risking anything. So my own ego made it difficult for me this time. It's terrifying, terrifying."

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Geoffrey Rush
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Then, what lured her back to the stage? "I just loved the play. Geoffrey sent it to me, with a really lovely letter, and I was naοve enough not to understand exactly what it meant if I did it, but I loved the play, and I just thought, 'Well, my kids are older. I can spend a little time on weekends away from them. That was always a problem when they were small.' It just seemed like something very unusual." She plays Marguerite, the older of the king's two queens and a crabby life-companion that doesn't soften till the play's closing moments when she ushers him into the hereafter. "She has an interesting arc. It's very clear what Geoffrey doesn't want, and what everyone else wants, but my character is kinda like the narrator in Our Town or something. You don't understand till the very end of the play what's really been going on with her at the beginning of the play. For me — who's a very touchy, feely kind of emotional person — for me to be so withdrawn and cold is strange. I think she probably is the other queen to begin with, and then 200 years later after she has been with this guy, she understands there's no place for sentimental love. She's helping him have his dignity. Sometimes you have to be tough."


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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.