Adam Rapp’s play Essential Self-Defense takes place in a Midwestern anytown where children have been steadily disappearing. In this self-described “grim fairy tale”, there are no clues to indicate the culprit; the townspeople (Klieg the butcher, Chuck the barber, Isaak the Russian custodian, Sorrell the punk librarian) are all eccentric but not particularly sinister. Rapp, to his credit, isn’t interested in whodunits; his focus here is the awkward courtship between the diminutive Sadie (brought to life with charming nuance by Heather Goldenhersh), a needy children’s books editor, and Yul (Paul Sparks), a Caulfieldian loner who works as an attack dummy in Sadie’s self-defense class. When Sadie knocks out Yul’s tooth during class, she leaps on her chance to launch a mack attack.
Sadie and Yul are a matched pair of tortured souls; she’s terrified of a beast with human hands she imagines prowling the woods near her house, while he lives the Unabomber life in a tiny basement apartment near the sewage treatment plant, where he toils away on his secret project and bangs a toy xylophone to keep the rats away. After a first date and sexless night on Yul’s cot, Sadie is smitten. But Yul, who’s prone to hyper-articulate polemics against the “heart-shrinking marketing goblins and corporate warlocks” remains impenetrably isolated. (His take on romance: “Love is an erroneous myth created by the Hallmark Corporation.”)
Catchy rock nuggets are scattered throughout the sumptuously staged Essential Self-Defense; the best scenes occur at a rock n’ roll karaoke night where a ‘ban’ on cover songs prompts revealing tunes sung by each character. The tight onstage band makes for lively interludes, but ultimately it can’t compensate for what proves to be a too-long, meandering and ultimately insubstantial play. Although the narrative is simple, you get the sense that there are enough interesting elements for an engaging one-act, if only the entire thing wasn’t dragged down by Sparks’s Yule, who utters every sentence in a repetitive, robotic monotone. Sparks has done superb work elsewhere (Bug, for starters), but his choice here reduces what could be an intriguing central character to a one-note caricature with whom empathy is impossible. And without a multi-dimensional Yule, Essential Self-Defense is an unaffecting, albeit colorful, bed-time story, not the portentous fairy tale about our Kingdom of Fear that Rapp intends.
Essential Self-Defense continues through April 15th at Playwrights Horizons [416 W. 42nd St.] Tickets cost $50. (Photo by Richard Termine)