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Geoffrey Rush dazzles in Broadway debut

Actor Geoffrey Rush poses on the red carpet at the world premiere of the film "Australia" in Sydney, November 18, 2008. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush has more than 70 theater productions in his native Australia to his credit, but never before has he appeared on a New York stage. Thankfully, that situation has been rectified with his magnificent starring turn in this revival of “Exit the King,” which also is welcome for being a rare Broadway production of a Eugene Ionesco play.

The 1962 absurdist comedy is the deceptively simple tale of an aged king -- 400 years old, to be exact -- of a failing kingdom who is informed that he has 90 minutes to live. Or, as it’s put to him in this work that frequently breaks the fourth wall: “You are going to die at the end of the play.”

As he’s long demonstrated in his films, Rush is a marvelously physical actor. But he outdoes himself here, delivering a vaudevillian display of dexterity and malleability that makes Groucho Marx seem stiff-limbed. In his virtuosic hands, the act of dying never has been quite so entertaining.

Attending to King Berenger in his final moments are his two queens: Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), his first wife, with whom he shares undisguised mutual contempt; and the much younger, grief-stricken Marie (Lauren Ambrose), whom he clearly adores.

Also on hand is an armor-suited guard (Brian Hutchison); a quack doctor (William Sadler), who advises the king not to eat beef stew because it would be bad for his health; and a wacky, overstressed maid (Andrea Martin).

There is little in the way of plot in the play, which at two hours and 20 minutes goes on rather too long to sustain its slender concept. But along the way it offers a series of pungent comic and not so comic riffs on a multitude of subjects, both political and personal, that register with full force in this adaptation by Rush and director Neil Armfield. The dialogue has been amusingly updated, with the king not only credited with such achievements as writing “The Iliad” and inventing the airplane but also with designing the first search engine and the “qwerty” keyboard. A line about having to pawn the palace washing machine to “bail out the treasury” naturally receives a tumultuous laugh.

Armfield’s staging, while fairly minimalist, is consistently imaginative and inventive. It is particularly powerful in the haunting final section, when Marguerite puts aside her hostility to gently guide the king through his demise, which is rendered with haunting physical poetry by Rush.

With the exception of Martin, who invests her broad turn as the maid with her usual expert comic timing and inflections, the supporting actors fare less well in their more one-dimensional roles. Sarandon, in her first Broadway turn since 1972 (she’s done some off-Broadway plays), looks regal but doesn’t quite convey the proper intensity. Ambrose does little more than look beautiful and weepy, but she does it quite well enough. And it’s fun to see Sadler, who has played so many memorable bad guys onscreen, displaying his comic chops as the white-faced doctor.

Mainstream audiences might find themselves baffled by the strange goings-on in “King,” but nobody will fail to recognize that they’re seeing a great actor deliver a never-to-forget performance.