Ionesco’s Exit the King, which turns 40 this year, has slipped into a paradoxical middle age. It’s become something of an absurdist classic, a cherished product of a theatrical movement that was mostly interested in clubbing—or at least holding up for ridicule—every cherished notion it could get its hands on. Staging Exit the King in 2002 means deciding whether to take a shot at enlivening the play’s poetically elliptical but very dated critiques of colonialism, totalitarianism, and a slew of other-isms, or to play it safe and concentrate on the script’s less, uh, didactic themes. In a production that opened over the weekend at the District of Columbia Arts Center, Affinity Theatre has gone the second route, letting all the talk of politics float in the theatrical ether and spinning the play as a ruminative essay on death and dying. (Each of the company members has written his biographical note for the program in the past tense: Anne Wright, the lighting designer, “wanted to thank her mom, dad, brother, Sara and Lander, but…well, she’s dead.”) And when you enter the DCAC’s black box before the show, the Jim Carroll Band’s “People Who Died” pours from the speakers. There’s certainly sense, if little risk, in that, because the king in question, Berenger (Paul C. Daily), who appears in most of Ionesco’s longer plays as a sort of authorial alter ego, is told only a few minutes into the action that he’s scheduled to die at the end of the show we’re watching. Berenger presides over an empire that is the largest and most accomplished in history but is disintegrating on his watch. He begins to experience a physical breakdown that parallels what’s going on outside the walls of his castle, where he’s holed up with the current queen, Marie (Rachel Holz), his ex-wife, Marguerite (Ginna L. Melendez), a doctor (Sara Barker), a guard (Dave Coyne), and a maid (Anna Stoner). Just as the riverbanks crumble and the earth quakes, Berenger’s legs go limp and his eyes fail. The body politic, in other words, is falling apart in more ways than one. Never fond of being labeled an absurdist, Ionesco preferred to call his work the “theater of derision.” In Exit the King, it’s more like erosion. Director Betty-Joyce Symphony adds some nice touches, like having Queen Marguerite and the doctor play chess on a miniature board while the king, a man they’re trying to make their pawn, hobbles from corner to corner. Others, like a slow-motion number in which the cast links arms and floats around the stage like a motorized daisy chain, don’t work quite as well. The young cast subsists more on energy than anything else; Daily’s King Berenger, if a little too much of a Chris Elliott-style sad sack for my taste, turns in the only performance that combines thoughtfulness and coherence. To succeed, any production of Ionesco has to be absurdist without being ascetic; it should look like Beckett with some meat on its bones. Despite its vitality and its game cast, Affinity’s version is still a bit on the skinny side.—Christopher Hawthorne