Rhinoceros” is one of those bad great plays, honored for its ideas (the encroachment of conformity, the death of humanism) and the memory of a legendary production (with Zero Mostel some 30 years ago), but so flawed dramatically that it requires a production with some kind of bold concept to make it come alive. This maiden production of Off Broadway’s new valiant Theater Company lacks that vision
Director Michael Murray lays out the text in a straightfor ward but unispired fashion, and the performances, though individually fine in many instances, have not been brought together with a consistent style. Small touches of updating — Daisy on Rollerblades, a mention of CNN — do little more than tell us the time is the present, failing to resonate with any subtext and creating no chill that this fable is about what is happening around us right now.
Still, there are some bright spots, especially in the performance of Zach Grenier as John. It falls to Grenier to enact the transformation of man into rhinoceros, a task he performs with wonderful rising energy. Indeed, his change of species is, as it should be, the high point of the play.
Peter Jacobson, in the central role of Berenger, must carry the play forward from the transformation scene. Throughout the play Jacobson manages to convey the appropriate ennui, but his thoughtful performance cannot provide the momentum needed to drive the play home.
Contributing to the production’s livelier moments are J.R. Horne as Bofford, the office skeptic, and Geoffrey Owens as Doddard, Berenger’s rival in love. Erin J. O’Brien, as the object of Berenger’s desire, acquits herself honorably. But, like most of the cast, it is as if she has been abandoned to find her own way without much support.
Making a significant contribution to the production is sound design group Aural Fixation. Karl Eigsti and Ted Simpson provide a handsome setting for the show’s first scene, but their designs cannot keep up with the demands of the later scenes, maintaining their functionality but losing their charm.