Writing our reviews these past few months, suggesting shows to see and shows to skip, we’ve often found ourselves in the minority. No shame in that, but we hadn’t realized just how much we’ve been taking for granted: We assumed that everybody wrote off American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption as phony, sentimental garbage. We assumed that everybody found Full House catchphrases painfully unfunny. We assumed that everybody hated overblown Oscar performances like Sean Penn’s in Mystic River (or Geoffrey Rush’s in Shine). We assumed that everybody had gotten over Jim Carrey’s “physical humor” a long time ago. We assumed that everybody hated Rent.
It’s only fair to begin by expressing our real gratitude to Geoffrey Rush and director Neil Armfield: we hadn’t read Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King until we heard about this show, and it’s a beautiful play. The 400-year-old King Berenger (Rush) ― after ruling his kingdom for thousands of years; inventing the the hot-air balloon, the zeppelin, the airplane, and the automobile; writing Shakespeare’s plays and Homer’s epics; founding the cities of Rome, New York, Moscow, Geneva and Paris; splitting the atom; and much besides ― is going to die (as his Queen so candidly puts it) “at the end of the play.” He is struck dumb, as anyone would be, by the fact of his extinction. Of course, his companions are unsympathetic or uncomprehending. The court doctor (William Sadler) wants him to accept the facts. Queen Margueritte (Susan Sarandon), wants him to die with dignity. His second and younger wife, Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose), wants him to take comfort from her pity. The palace guard (played as a Spaceballs flunky by Brian Hutchison) acts as if nothing has changed. Only his attendant Juliette (a wonderful Andrea Martin) provides a humane combination of sadness and support.
In the continuing interest of fairness, we should say that the best case for this production was made by Matthew Murray at Talkin’ Broadway. We, on the other hand, think that the problems began soon after the choice of play, starting with Rush and Armfield’s new adaptation.
The guiding principle of this adaptation is condescension. (As one reviewer put it, Rush and Armfield “preserved the play’s piquance while making its humor and soulfulness accessible to audience members who might not have rushed to see Ionesco done by lesser-known actors.”) Assuming that the benighted masses wouldn’t appreciate the irony of Berenger’s circumstances (or moments like the court astronomer’s announcement that “The Milky Way appears to be curdling”) Rush and Armfield larded the script with catch phrases and one-liners: Juliette is asked to go fetch the government ministers, who are vacationing at the outer-reaches of Berenger’s kingdom (i.e., about 15 feet away). “They won’t come. They’re on leave. I’ll take a look anyway.” No laughs; throw something in. “(Facing the audience, shrugging) Whatever.” How accessible!
There are also a few “sly contemporary references.” A couple of representative examples: Berenger complains that it’s ridiculous to be living in “a palace without a washing machine.” Queen Marguerite explains: “We had to pawn it to bailout the Treasury.” Later, the Guard defends his king against the charge of gratuitous violence. Whatever Berenger did, he did “for national security.” How sly!
Words aside, what about Rush’s “dazzling arsenal of mime, clowning and physical techniques”? At best, it’s amusing enough (sometimes recalling Dominique Pinon in Delicatessen) but most of it is as predictable as the interpolated jokes. Rush falls backwards, legs behind his head, ass out at the audience ― and we’re one flaming fart away from Dumb and Dumber.
Is any of this “funny”? No, and for a simple reason: none of it is surprising. You can queue a laugh track with predictable gags, but real laughter requires something a little unexpected.
Of course, “getting laughs isn’t all that this piece is about.” The challenge of playing King Berenger is similar to that of playing Firs, the old butler in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. (Richard Easton, who played Firs perfectly in BAM’s Cherry Orchard earlier this year, played King Berenger in the original Broadway production of Exit the King.) In both cases, the humor and the pity arise from the contrast between the old men’s bearing and their terminal situations; and in both cases the actor needs to avoid cartoonish farce and maudlin sentimentality. Rush avoids neither. The big emotions are as false and clichéd as the big laughs. An “emotional roller coaster”? More like a tranquilized Teacup ride.
There is one thing that critics have consistently complained about: a female lead. Ben Brantley called Ambrose’s performance “overripe”; more than a few critics settled on “melodramatic.” Absurdly, they were being complimentary. On the other hand, when David Rooney at Variety said that Sarandon “maintains her naturalistic screen style,” he meant it is a criticism. He wasn’t alone. The critics wanted “something bolder,” more “intensity,” “big stylized technique.” Thankfully, Sarandon doesn’t provide any of it. Far and away the high point of this production is her closing monologue. With cool authority, she guides King Berenger through a prolonged pantomime of suicide, severing his connections to the world one item at a time. Responding to Sarandon’s perfect delivery, Rush deploys that arsenal of physical techniques to a purpose, and produces real emotion. What a shame that this magnificent ending was preceded by so much dreck.
If Dumb and Dumber is your most-watched DVD, you’ll love watching Rush trip and tumble about the stage. If you chuckle every time Uncle Jesse says “Have mercy,” this show’s zingers will have you in stitches. If a white plastic bag floating in the wind is “the most beautiful thing” you’ve ever seen, you’ll be reduced to tears when Rush wanders the aisles, imploring the dead for help. If you love Sean Penn, John Malkovich and Daniel Day-Lewis at their most histrionic, you’ll be swept away by Rush’s “virtuoso” performance.
Otherwise, skip the show, and stick with us.
* Besides Dale Ferguson’s perfect and decidedly non-minimalist scenery and costumes, the best thing about this production was John Rodgers’ music ― particularly Shane Endsley’s trumpet, which evoked Miles Davis in his Sketches of Spain phase. We’d like to hear more of Endsley’s playing. Does anybody know where we can find it?