nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 25, 2007
The thing I remember most about Adam Rapp's new play Essential Self-Defense is that it contains a speech about frog urine—very likely a first for New York theatre, though I haven't researched the matter carefully. The frog urine reference stands out for me as emblematic of the determinedly gross temperament of this piece—the one thing you can count on here is that when a new character is introduced, within minutes he or she will regale us with a disgusting and/or vulgar Jackass-style anecdote. Indeed, the play mostly feels like it was written by a 13-year-old teenage boy trying desperately to get some attention. Rapp has gotten the theatre world's attention, but Essential Self-Defense makes you wonder whether he's deserved any of it.
It's about a loner named Yul who lives in a rat-infested room in or near a sewer (I wasn't quite clear as to exactly where it's supposed to be). Yul used to make knobs for TV sets for Zenith, but he now works as a live "target" at a self-defense class, which means he wears a big silly padded yellow suit (but not, oddly, any protection for his head or face) and students pummel and attack him repeatedly.
One of the students in the class is Sadie, a young woman who has been having scary nightmares about wolves and who admits to being terrified just about all the time. After she knocks one of Yul's teeth out during class, she decides to get in touch with this complete stranger, invites him to meet her at a local karaoke bar, and then goes home with him (to the rat-infested sewer-place). Eventually, the two fall in love; Essential Self-Defense strives to be, on one level, a romantic comedy.
Except, of course, that it makes no sense whatsoever, as the preceding has (I hope) illustrated. Yul is also a conspiracy theorist who is experimenting with turning eggs into explosive devices. He doesn't drink alcohol and mistrusts the corporate establishment. Both he and Sadie are great at karaoke, though. And Yul is strong enough to crush the hand of the town butcher, Klieg (who is described as having "the strongest right hand in the world"), thus making himself a bad enemy: Klieg starts rumors that Yul is the one who kidnapped the 15 children who have gone missing from the local junior high school, and eventually they have a sort of duel in a forest outside town.
Still not making much sense, is it?
My guess is that this stuff sounded hilarious to Rapp and some of his buddies when they were out drinking one night, but his collaborators at Playwrights Horizons and Edge Theater, who co-produced Essential Self-Defense, should have let him know that the play instead is a ludicrous mess. What's most indefensible about it is that Rapp has inserted some timely-sounding but entirely vacant cautionary themes into the script, trying to play on the audience's post-9/11 angst without really meaning any of it.
Director Carolyn Cantor tries to cover up the emptiness of the proceedings with an arty staging that puts the actors on benches on the sidelines when they're not actively involved in scenes (no idea what that's supposed to signify) and includes a completely gratuitous nude scene for Yul (played by Paul Sparks). Set designer David Korins flexes his imaginative muscle with a unit set that does lots of tricks but fails to explicate what the play might be about. Both are trying to place the piece somewhere on a continuum between far-out American Gothic and surreal, but the play's inconsistencies make either classification ultimately impossible. Good actors like Guy Boyd and Heather Goldenhersh are wasted here; only the two-man band (Ray Rizzo and Lucas Papaelias, both of whom collaborated with Rapp on the postmodern punk songs) fares well.