It's hard to think of a less probable candidate for Broadway revival than Ionesco's absurdist tale of the decline and fall of King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush). Last produced on the Great White Way in 1968, six years after it was written, the drama literalizes the history-class concept of the king's two bodies. As the 400-year-old Berenger the First lapses into decrepitude and senility, his once-glorious kingdom, too, is shrinking, aging, and falling apart. His disgusted first wife, Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), harangues the vain, doddering monarch that he should long ago have abdicated and resigned himself to mortality, while his ditsy second wife Marie (Lauren Ambrose) tries to shield him from his death, which, Marguerite informs us in no uncertain terms, will come at the end of the play.
Yet with all the strikes against it-too avant-garde, too dated, too obscure, too depressing, no Euro-Disney effects-this new production is one of the best shows to open this season. Much of the credit is due to director Neil Armstrong, whose brisk, baroque staging allows the players to exult in the gorgeousness and ridiculousness of the play's language and ever-shifting moods, while keeping the action inexorably moving toward its fatal finale. But perhaps most impressive of all is his ability to keep this ensemble of stars acting as a true ensemble, with even the beleaguered maid Juliette (Andrea Martin), who can't keep up with the crumbling castle, and the enervated guard (Brian Hutchison), who pays a memorable tribute to Berenger's glory days, receiving their well-deserved moments in the spotlight. Ambrose as Queen Marie is almost too endearing as she tries to bolster Berenger's fading life force and begs him to remember her, and Sarandon's impatient queen is always riveting, though her transition from exasperated, overlooked spouse to dispassionate guide to death is unduly abrupt.
But Geoffrey Rush, as the deteriorating king, is undeniably the star. Beginning the show in willful oblivion, his slapstick turns as he enacts the grotesque comedy of his failing physical powers are at once hysterical and horrifying, and his stark selfishness as he confronts the void is ultimately all too relatable. The more narcissistic he grows as everything but his imminent death falls away from him, the more inextricably the audience comes, love him or hate him, to identify with him. The unforced standing ovation from the audience brings new meaning to the time-worn phrase: The King is dead long live the King.