At the Charles Playhouse through December 22.

Ionesco and the Charles Playhouse ought to make a perfect couple--Ionesco with innumerable gimmicks to lure his audience onto the stage, the Charles with its seats circling the platform and its actors circling the platform and its actors scurrying up and down the aisles. In Michael Murray's Rhinoceros, which opened at the Charles last week, the marriage almost comes off--but not quite--and the man who ruined the wedding isn't hard to find. Robert Barend's fumbling portrayal of Berenger spoils a delightful Ionesco tragicomedy, leaving a passable production with too many thuds where there should have been laughter.

Rhinoceros is clever if not especially profound. As the play begins, some French villagers are passing their Sunday afternoon with trivial conversation. A rhinoceros thunders through the middle of town. A second follows, and a preposterous argument ensues. Did the rhinos have one or two horns, were they African or Asian? The town logician (J. Frank Lucas) confuses the people with his circuitous syllogisms, and M. Botard (Robert Gaus) insists that the rhinos couldn't possibly exist--or if they do, they must be stooges in a capitalist plot.

By the end of the second act, everyone is turning into a rhinoceros. Jean (Herbert Voland) changes before Berenger's eyes, at first thinking he's sick, then talking the part of a rhino compassionately: "We should go back to nature. We need primeval integrity in this world!" Voland's blustering temper and bull-like charges highlight the production; one expects him to attack the audience, but he runs off to join the other pachyderms instead.

Berenger remains as the only citizen to escape transformation. He is alone, fighting for "a set of moral standards," pledging to stick up for the human world in which he was a bumbling failure. At the end of the play, the audience should be relieved and tired--relieved that they, like Berenger, didn't grow horns, and tired from fighting the herd along with him. They aren't, for Barend fails to communicate; his delivery is slurred and his funny lines dribble out like sap from a rubber tree. He plays a weak foil to a fine supporting cast, and is nearly forgotten in his scenes with Jean, Daisy, and M. Dudard (James Beard). Barend even spoils Ionesco's counterpoint in the first act, where lines, roles, and arguments flow from one character to another in a masterpiece of confusion.

Murray's production succeeds in almost every other respect. The scenery is quaintly French, the sound effects--bellowing beasts and thundering herds--frightfully realistic, and the two bedrooms scenes deftly staged. Ionesco's dry comic touches exude his French sense of humor and the final scene in Berenger's room could be quite powerful with a suitable player. If Barend learns to act, the Rhinoceros will be a welcome guest in Boston.