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Suspense Meets Absurdism in 'Rhinbecca, NY'

Theater Reconstruction Ensemble’s latest work crosses Hitchcock with Ionesco.

Photo by Suzi Sadler

On a night like any other night, a man who looks like he belongs in an old black-and-white movie steps out of his Oldsmobile and into a world he never could have imagined. He is greeted by an entire town full of people eager to show off their home, their landscape that was once a landfill, their holy sandwich and more than anything the home of their beloved but mysteriously vanished mayor. As Don struggles to find his bearings in this bizarre landscape, the townspeople lead him in circles until he can no longer remember what he is doing there...but why?

Theater Reconstruction Ensemble's Rhinbecca, NY is a collision of a Hitchcock-esque suspense thriller and classic absurdism in the style of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinocéros. The mashup may sound surprising at first, but it is impressive how well the two genres fit together, generating a surreal atmosphere in which Don must solve the mystery of the missing mayor and of his own reason for being in the town even as Rhinbecca flouts the basic rules of his reality. In this piece conceived and directed by John Kurzynowski, the ensemble conjures up a delightful funhouse setting, no actual set required.

TRE's particular brand of experimental devised theater greatly benefits from the requirements of Hitchcock's thriller style: a largely linear plot, recognizable protagonist and periodic interludes in which that protagonist analyzes his surroundings and what he might learn from them to solve the mystery. Where the play stumbles is in a tendency to mix up the distinct genre and aims of 1950s French absurdism with today's postmodernism, losing the particular references to Ionesco in an unfocused sequence of devised skits that may or may not be relevant to the eventual plot. From the dress shop to the church bells to the little house the town council meets in on days they can fit inside, Don's disorienting visits to different parts of the town often prove to be no more than that.

Yet there are a few moments when the Hitchcock-Ionesco blend works perfectly, especially in Don's monologues and the extended sequence in which the townspeople describe the appearance of the mayor we never get to see in immense detail. Nathaniel Basch-Gould gives an impressive performance as Don, his powerful commitment to the world providing an important entry point into the piece, though Lauren Swan-Potras as the emerging leader of the townspeople is the only member of the ensemble who comes close to matching his energy. The magic of Rhinbecca, NY occurs when we can find the story and the humanity amidst the chaos, not in its endless rotation of ensemble characters with funny accents.

Other questionable choices include the entire cast with the exception of Don being dressed in generic modern exercise attire and the sound board operator sitting at a table centerstage, largely silent other than periodic "phone calls" to her mother on a fake prop phone. None of these decisions are necessarily wrong for the piece, but more often than not there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for the disparate scenic elements thrown together to make Rhinbecca, NY. Having turned the Brick Theater into a long, narrow carpeted space with audience seated too closely together around the outside, the Theater Reconstruction Ensemble challenges its viewers every second of the play and no one can predict the results.

So what exactly is Rhinbecca, NY? Certainly more than a combination of two dramatic styles exemplified by iconic writers, nor simply just a play inspired by their works. Instead, these artists transcend the historical backdrop of their sources to create something experimental and contemporary. The play is certainly a challenge to watch, but a unique theatrical experience worth seeing all the same.

Rhinbecca, NY plays at the Brick Theater through March 19.

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