Adam Rapp's surprising and strikingly funny new play is a modern-day fable that mostly plays like a sensationally unique black comedy. The play wrings contemporary humor out of the story of two fearful, seemingly traumatized loners who meet in a self-defense class, while sustaining a chord of dread that speaks to the fear-based anxiety in our current culture. Recommended.
photo: Joan Marcus
Reviewed by Patrick Lee
The wildly surprising and wonderfully offbeat Essential Self-Defense has the feeling of a dark fable that captures some free-floating fear in the current American zeitgeist. It's set in an American heartland anytown called Bloggs, where schoolchildren are vanishing, and peopled with deliberately exaggerated characters who get caught up in an "if you see something say something" culture of suspicion. It feels like a bleak and funny satirical cartoon and is nothing short of genuinely contemporary.
The two main characters in this strikingly funny new play seem to walk around in a heightened state of anxiety. He, amusingly named Yul Carroll, is a profoundly paranoid conspiracy-theorist type who lives in a ready-for-lockdown cement cell. She, Sadie, is a seemingly traumatized bookworm who hallucinates wolves literally at her door. They meet in a self-defense class where he works as a rubber-padded tackle dummy. When she lunges too hard and knocks his tooth out, in a moment that evokes cartoon violence (if you squint it looks like Olive Oyl landing a kick to Popeye), she's flustered and embarrassed and a relationship fearfully begins.
While playwright Adam Rapp keeps sounding a chord of dread throughout, most of the play is one variety or another of comic. As Yul (Paul Sparks) and Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh) inch slowly toward each other, there's a deadpan brand of black humor that is at its most hilarious at its most horrible: when she sleeps over at his place, he has to lay rat traps out before she can turn out the lights. So much for romance in a culture of fear.
Rapp flirts with (but stops short of) absurdism - some of Yul's worldviews (he believes his skateshoes were thrown into a toxic waste incinerator by an evil gang of kung fu rollerbladers) would be preposterous if they weren't so stone-faced earnest - and he even takes the play in whimsical directions (especially in an Act 2 musical number that I wouldn't dream of spoiling). In the scenes at the local karaoke bar where the characters sing impromptu songs (written by Rapp along with Ray Rizzo and Lucas Papaelias, who are also the on-stage band) Rapp goes for a more traditional brand of satire, poking fun at pop culture.
Yet through all this activity, Rapp never loses his gravity. I haven't seen anything as purposeful as this that chances such seismic shifts in tone since the revival of John Guare's Landscape of the Body that I loved last year. This is even better: a starrling left turn for Rapp, who was a Pulitzer finalist last year for his unflinching and grim Red Light Winter.
This production, at Playwrights Horizons but co-produced by Edge Theatre, has been astutely directed by Carolyn Cantor. The play may deceptively seem on the page to fly from one lark to another but it all moves together thanks in part to her staging; it seems hot-wired to the playwright's distinctive, unique vision. All the performances have been put on the same page of quirky heightenedness: Heather Goldenhersh's performance as Sadie anchors the play by striking notes of terrfied vulnerability under a shell-shocked exterior. As Yul, Paul Sparks is stunningly precise - he gives most of his line readings a tense robotic plainness that renders them comic, but it's also the credibly flat affect of a depressed loner on the edge.
I saw an early preview, but Essential Self-Defense is already sharp and in-shape. All it needs now is to be seen.
At Playwrights Horizons (416 W. 42nd Street)
Tickets (212-279-4200): $50; $20 for theatregoers under 30
Performances: Tues-Fri at 7:30pm, Sat at 2 & 7:30pm, and Sun at 2 & 7pm;
Special added performance on Monday, March 26 @ 7:30pm.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.