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A CurtainUp Review
Essential Self-Defense

I think sometimes people fall into holes and the holes close up.— Yul
My characters are always trying to find a home. My plays and novels constantly involve people trying to find refuge in chaos. And they're constantly trying to connect with people who are strangers.—Adam Rapp

Heather Goldenhersh as Sadie and Paul Sparks as Yul  in Essential Self Defense
Heather Goldenhersh as Sadie and Paul Sparks as Yul in Essential Self Defense. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's been several days since I saw Adam Rapp's new play and I still have no idea what to make of it even though Rapp is one my top three favorite playwrights and I've been following his work avidly for years. Essential Self-Defense currently at Playwrights Horizons is either a truly subversive piece of genius or his first flop.

It's been (quite accurately) described as a "grim fairy tale with generous helpings of rock 'n' roll karaoke. All the Rapp hallmarks are in place—quirky characters, an ambiguous story line, a political undertone, and a semi-apocalyptic atmosphere of despair and fear. More so than some of his recent works (Red Light Winter, the film Winter Passing) this new play feels very much like early Sam Shepard. It has that same rock 'n' roll, edgy downtown hipness—in this case literally so since a guitar player and a drummer are key players. In fact, Essential Self-Defense is almost a musical (in the sense that Richard Maxwell's plays are musicals).

Directed by Carolyn Cantor who's attuned to Rapp's style (Stone Cold Dead Serious), the play co-stars a Rapp favorites Heather Goldenhersh and Paul Sparks (in fact, Paul and Heather's parts were written for them). Also on stage are members of Rapp's own rock band, including Ray Rizzo. Yet, for all its strong suits, the play is enigmatic, almost unfathomable.

It takes place in the fictional Midwestern town of Bloggs where kids keep disappearing from the local middle school. One of Bloggs' oddest residents is Yul (Paul Sparks), a loner and a misfit. He's the kind of guy who lives in an abandoned basement, harbors various conspiracy theories and a pronounced distrust of the corporate world and unseen political forces— views which Rapp shares to a lesser extent. After being fired as a door knob maker at the Zenith plant, Yul takes a job as an attack dummy at the local self-defense class. Enter Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh), a repressed bookworm whose fears of unseen forces have prompted her to take lessons. After she accidentally knocks Yul's tooth out in class (his yellow punching bag suit—courtesy of designer Miranda Hoffman—didn't come with head protection), they begin to connect with each other, primarily during karaoke nights at the local bar. But the townspeople begin to think he's responsible for the kids' disappearance. The chief accuser is Klieg the Butcher (Guy Boyd), who's himself quite scary. One night, a struggle in the woods between Klieg and Yul brings things to a head.

This is not your average mystery or romance. There are monsters, rock songs, mysterious eggs, and a disco-themed dream sequence dance number on roller skates. It may be that Rapp is trying to mix a romantic comedy with a political commentary on life during the War on Terror. In any case, his romantic heroine, for all her terror of an unidentified creature, never recognizes the potential danger in Yul. All the mysterious hints of unidentified (or misidentified) evil, don't really move the plot forward but in circles, eventually fizzling out in an ambiguous ending. The talk about the Corporate Machine and monsters and disappearing children never really clarify what Rapp is actually trying to say. Is Essential Self-Defense a political allegory? A cautionary tale about post-9/11 life in a scapegoat culture? A long and surreal rock video? All of the above? None of the above?

Unlike regular karaoke (cover songs), the characters sing off-the-cuff, making up their lyrics on the spot, and the band improvising the accompanying tunes. The actors seem to be having a great time unleashing their inner lead singers. Actually, the songs are scripted (by Rapp and members of his band) and not truly spontaneous, but they constitute the best parts of the show since Rapp and his band are really pretty rockin'.

Sadie and Yul are certainly an intriguing odd couple. He has a gift for saying inexplicable and sometimes inappropriate things—in fact, he seems like a perfect candidate for Asperger's syndrome (inability to pick up on social cues; formal, flat speech without tone or pitch; lack of empathy and almost a lesser version of autism). Sadie is nervous and shy and fidgety. Sparks' weird, atonal speech is annoying at first, but we warm to to him by the end of the play for despite his complete lack of social graces he comes off as a potentiall nice and even approachable guy. Sadie's vulnerability is cloying, but also quite loveable. And so, mannerisms that in the hands of less capable actors could easily turn an audience off highlight Sadie and Yul's basic humanity and make you understand their subtle, offbeat connection.

Goldenhersh and Sparks are supported by a fine cast. Cheryl Lynn Bowers is a standout as Sadie's fierce librarian friend. Brash and punky, she is the perfect extroverted foil to Sadie and Yul. Bowers is clearly having fun with her role as the kareoke bar's emcee. She pumps up the rest of the cast and the audience.

Even though Essential Self-Defense is in Playwrights Horizons' smaller Peter Jay Sharpe theater, it feels almost too uptown for what has been billed as Rapp's breakout play and is basically more experimental and less polished than his earlier works. Although this is not a big theater the action is too spaced out. David Korins' sets, though ingenious like most of his work, is too elaborate and puts the band too far upstage. The play seems to cry out for venue that would put the audience right up close to the action, maybe even seated around it, feeling like part of ther crowd in the bar scenes.

For all my befuddlement, and perhaps yours as well, there's much to enjoy here. It's even fun and stimulating to be so stymied by a play that it's not really over when it's over because you're still trying to figure it out.

Title: Essential Self-Defense
Written by Adam Rapp
Directed by Carolyn Cantor
Cast: Cheryl Lynn Bowers (Sorrell), Guy Boyd (Chuck the Barber), Michael Chernus (Isaak Glinka), Joel Marsh Garland (Klieg the Butcher), Heather Goldenhersh (Sadie), Lucas Papaelias (Todd/UPS Man/Nurse, guitar), Ray Rizzo (Bob Beard, drums) and Paul Sparks (Yul)
Original Music and Lyrics: Ray Rizzo, Adam Rapp and Lucas Papaelias Set Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Sound Design: Eric Shim
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, with one fifteen-minute intermission
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200
03/15/07to 4/15/07;opening 3/28/07
Tickets $50; Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on March 24th performance
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