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The play "Rhinoceros"--currently being given its first New York staging since 1961 as the inaugural offering of the promising new Valiant Theatre Company--holds all sorts of strange legacies for its iconoclastic author, Eugene Ionesco. In particular, it is peculiar, and a bit of a shame, that Ionesco, a master of the absurdist short-form who once fervently railed against social drama of any kind, should be best known (at least, in this country) for a full-length, full-blown social metaphor for mass conformism.

It is additionally ironic that--for such a language-driven dramatist--the play's sole remaining theatrical interest lies not in its rather shallow, one-note thesis, but in the enormous acting opportunity found in the role of John, friend of the doomed protagonist, Beringer. In the play's American debut, the part was played by Zero Mostel, and his onstage transformation from man to Rhinoceros is still talked about.

For the Mostel role, director Michael Murray has cast Zach Grenier. It's a good choice; anyone who has seen Grenier act can vouch for the intensity he brings to the mildest of roles. Indeed, Grenier is the best actor here, and the production suffers when he leaves the stage. He is amusingly clipped and didactic in the first act, and brings a nice combination of the instinctually physical and intellectually quizzical to his metamorphosis. His inventive delivery of simple lines like "I don't feel good" provides what little humor the production has.

Grenier is the only member of the cast who manages a modulated performance, unfortunately. The other actors are hobbled by Murray's direction. which keeps their delivery at a uniformly earnest pitch. The unrelieved fustian becomes aurally battering after a while and leaves untapped the depths of meaning, and even despair, that should lurk beneath an absurdist point of view. Karl Eigsti and Ted Simpson's set design and Amela Baksic's costumes are nicely cartoonish, but they unfortunately only contributes to the oppressive sense of antic eccentricity.

Presented by the Valiant Theatre Company at Theatre Four, 424 W. 55th St., Sept. 24

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