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Essential Self-Defense

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Front: Heather Goldenhersh and Paul Sparks; Rear (left to right): Guy Boyd, Joel Marsh Garland, Michael Chernus
Photo by Joan Marcus

Figuring out who "they" are when "they" are out to get you can be tricky, especially when "their" identities seem to change as often as the wind. Kind of like, you might say, the Adam Rapp oeuvre. One season you might be suffering through a burned-out dystopian tragedy, the next a drug-saturated comedy, still another a crushing romantic drama or sex-oriented character study, and then later still something that so defies categorization that to even attempt it is to court insanity.

That last one is the specific entrée into Rapp's latest exercise in symbol-flinging masquerading as a play, Essential Self-Defense, a coproduction of Playwrights Horizons and Edge Theater that just opened at Playwrights Horizon's Peter Jay Sharp Theater. It's impenetrable even by Rapp's impeccable standards: From Easter eggs and roller skates to psychotic butchers and thyroid deficiencies, you receive in this play the full spectrum of Rapp's astute detail of characterization and (much more often) his desire to provoke absurdism the way a kindergartener might prod a hornet's nest.

Were it not for the presence of Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh in the play's two central roles, you would swear you'd already been stung a hundred times. But Sparks, who in works like Blackbird and Finer Noble Gases has proven himself a prime Rapp interpreter, and Goldenhersh, who established herself as a quintessential questioning Everywoman in John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, carry with them an earnestness and self-control that allow them to make some sense in a place - and a play - where practically nothing else ever does.

Paul Sparks
Photo by Joan Marcus

That place would be Bloggs, a distractingly rural town somewhere in America, where a dozen junior-high-school students have already gone missing and more are vanishing every day. This has thrown the town into a flurry of fury and fear, represented by Sadie (Goldenhersh) and her decision to begin a self-defense course in which Yul (Sparks) serves as the human tackling dummy. Decked out in a thickly padded yellow suit (the costume designer is Miranda Hoffman), he has only to worry about blows directly to his face. But after Sadie discovers this and accidentally knocks out a tooth, the course of her apologizing and getting to know Yul leaves her heart no less vulnerable.

Things do not, however, remain at this rarified level for long: Yul is a determined anti-consumerist with a thyroid "in a state of perpetual atrophy," which has rendered him slow and slurred of speech; Sadie can't conquer her own innate fears of fighting through life unaided, and has a liking for visiting a bar where extreme karaoke not only involves singing wholly original song but requires it. How lucky that Yul once formed his own one-man garage band, though his winning doesn't sit well with the mean-spirited butcher (Joel Marsh Garland) who scowls over the club when he's not convinced this outsider is to blame for the town's missing kids.

What ensues would be a battle of wits if any of the characters had them. But with the exception of the bar owner and her Russian poet husband (Cheryl Lynn Bowers and Michael Chernus), who are presented as firmly (if bizarrely) grounded in adult concerns, everyone is a juvenile trapped in an adult's body. And, like children, they've constructed elaborate emotional barriers around themselves to prevent them from having to deal with each other in realistic terms. Even the real children who've been disappearing cannot necessarily be taken at face value.

Rapp's cynicism and critique might cut deeper if his characters' excessive eccentricities didn't seem like his own method of avoiding honest human interactions. But everything they say and do is toxic only for toxicity's sake, never leading (as similar tactics did in his lacerating Blackbird did) to lucid insights or an analysis of the paranoia and phobias by which all these characters govern their lives. Yul's pithy epigrams, for example, reek less of his dissatisfaction with the country's imploded priorities than Rapp's forced attempts at cleverness ("Love is an erroneous myth created by the Hallmark Corporation" is Yul's most level-headed conspiracy theory; "I think sometimes people fall into holes and sometimes the holes close" is his overriding worldview), and Rapp devotes so much time to exploring everyone's weird need for weird safety, he leaves himself no time to explore their hearts.

Sparks and Goldenhersh fulfill those chores well enough, and almost succeed in making their characters function as the eccentric center of their ulcerated society; Guy Boyd also has a few glimmering moments of something resembling compassion as Yul's paternal barber. But neither they, the firm direction from Carolyn Cantor, nor the Norman Rockwell acid trip of a set by David Korins can make Bloggs feel more like a city under siege than a vomiting question mark, the product of a world gone wrong merely because people exist in it.

Fans of Rapp's other plays will recognize this as the message of a majority of them. But no new dialect or bizarre speech impediment can change the fact we've heard all this from Rapp long before he and Essential Self-Defense donned their padded suits.

Essential Self-Defense
Through April 15
Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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