Thursday, July 2, 2009
The third play we saw on our recent weekend in New York has now closed: Exit the King, starring Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush (who won a Tony for Best Actor.) In fact, we saw it on the last day. I've never been to a closing performance, and I sort of wondered if we would get the full effort. But, aside from Sarandon discreetly cracking up once when the actor who played the guard had some fun repeating a line, nothing seemed amiss.
I have never read this play, by Eugene Ionesco, but it offered an interesting counter-point to Waiting for Godot. The central dilemma in Godot is trying to find some meaning in life, some reason to keep on going in the face of a futile, often brutal existence. The central dilemma in Exit the King is coming to terms with the loss of that life, however meaningless and painful it might be.
Rush gave a stunning, clownish, scenery chewing performance, one full of bluster and pathos. His King clung to life with every ounce of his rapidly diminishing strength. The world is literally dying along with this solipcistic king -- the kingdom itself torn apart by volcanoes and earthquakes, the population rendered helpless and infertile as he dies.This is one man who refuses to go gently into that good night. The king is the walking embodiment of the id. The world and everyone in it exists for his pleasure. When he ceases to exist, the world will, too.
And isn't this, really, what all of us believe in our heart of hearts, in the secret hidey holes of our souls? I am the center of the universe. I cannot imagine a world without me. Death is the great void. The death of everything. I fear it. This incredible performance gave me the chance to recognize and give voice to those feelings. Actually, it rather insisted upon it.
The script and the play's direction forced us to recognize ourselves in the King, constantly breaking the 4th wall by making direct references to how many minutes his life (and the play) had left, placing the palace's Doritos-munching trumpeter in a balcony box, even sending Rush at one point up and down the aisles of the theater, where he stood right next to us, looking us in the eye as he railed against his inevitable end. (Incidentally, Rush is one skinny dude.)
Sarandon was good as the put-upon first wife, whose eye-rolling, cynical exterior masks a gentle side. In a long soliloquy at the end of the play, her almost maternal love shines as she tries to persuade the king to loosen his clenched fist and let go. Lauren Ambrose could have devolved into caricature as the king's beautiful second wife, Queen Marie. Like Rush, she's over-the-top in her arm-flinging, mascara-running distress. But her palpable love for the king and her blissfully youthful naivitee are compelling and real.
All-in-all, a memorable play and a great weekend on Broadway.