Sunday, March 18, 2007

Brooklyn Arden Review: "Essential Self-Defense"

"Essential Self-Defense," by Adam Rapp. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. An Edge Theatre production at Playwrights Horizons; through April 15.

A few years ago, for reasons I don't remember, I was thinking about what would be the hardest art form to do well, based solely on the number of people involved in its production. With this criterion, a poem, a novel, a short story, or a painting or sculpture would be easiest ("Ha!" all the writers out there say. "Ha! Ha!"), as it involves only one performer, the author or artist; followed by a monologue, song, or performance art, which would require both a writer and a performer (or one person with talent at both skills); followed by a play or symphony, which would require a writer, a director, and multiple performers (actors or musicians); and so on and so forth. I finally decidest that the hardest possible art form to do well would be a film of an opera or musical, as it would require all the talent necessary for a quality musical/opera, as well as all the talent necessary for a wonderful film. (This is one of the reasons "Singin' in the Rain" is superior to "The Godfather.") What makes each level progressively more difficult is that art is a series of choices, conscious or not; and with each additional person involved, you have one more person who can make a bad choice or give a bad performance. So each person raises the tightrope that much higher, makes the art that much less likely to be a full success -- and of course it's that much more of a miracle when an artistic work is a success, that much more worthy of praise and celebration.

This hierarchy came to mind again last night after I saw "Essential Self-Defense" by Adam Rapp, a play with music, and many of the choices on display -- from Mr. Rapp, from the director Ms. Cantor, and from the two principal actors -- utterly baffled me. When the curtain rises, a young woman named Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh) -- a production editor for a children's book publisher, natch -- is taking a self-defense class in the small town of Bloggs somewhere in the Midwest. She accidentally knocks out the tooth of the man serving as the attack dummy, Yul (Paul Sparks), and asks him out for a drink in apology. As their relationship develops over the course of the play, they trade personal stories, roller-skate, and sing punk-rock karaoke, while other characters periodically provide bulletins on the disappearance of some teenagers from the local junior high school, adding to the overall atmosphere of threat and oppression. The play as a whole is a black comedy on the role of fear in modern life -- fear of the culture, fear of corporations, and fear of other people, which may or may not be justified.

Sounds good, right? But here comes Baffling Choice #1: Yul, the hero, is played (and was presumably written and directed) as Forrest Gump with Asperger's and a violent streak -- a man with strange speech patterns, bizarre behavior, no skill at relating to other people (he says of Mein Kampf, "Boy, that man sure struggled"), and a near-perpetual grimace. His antisocial tendencies are explained partly by his having a thyroid problem, and he does display an unexpected ability to rock out in an early karaoke scene; and yet I was left unsure how to take him -- whether to sympathize, laugh, or shudder -- for pretty much all of the play. Baffling Choice #2: Sadie, the heroine, is played (and was presumably etc.) as a nervous nellie who may have some mental problems herself. Actually, the nervousness is understandable, considering that she fears attack by a wolfman at any moment; what's not clear is why she would be attracted to Yul for any reason other than her fear and loneliness, which aren't quite enough for the attraction the play wants us to believe. And the mere existence of said attraction made me distrust her in turn.

So I didn't much care for the protagonists or sympathize with their aims, which made it difficult to care about the play, period. Given this distancing, the musical numbers, and the way the fear theme drove both the characters and the action (Baffling Choice #3: The mystery of the teenagers' disappearance is resolved in a way that has everything to do with theme and virtually nothing to do with any of the people onstage), I wonder if perhaps Mr. Rapp and Ms. Cantor were going for Brechtian epic theatre here, deliberately pushing the audience away so we would focus on and think more about the fears in our own lives. If this was their intention, all the Baffling Choices would make sense; and it did succeed somewhat, as I thought a little about the current American atmosphere of corporate dominance and (this being New York) Republican fearmongering. But I'm afraid I thought far more about how off-putting I found the characters.

Being Playwrights Horizons, the production values are excellent and excellently carried off, and Mr. Sparks and Ms. Goldenhersh maintain their Baffling Choices with admirable skill. Cheryl Lynn Bowers as the punk librarian Sorrell, Joel Marsh Garland as Klieg the Butcher, and Michael Chernus as Isaak Glinka all turned in refreshingly human performances. The backing punk band -- consisting of Ray Rizzo on drums and an awesome guitarist named Lucas Papaelias -- rawked (they also wrote the music with Mr. Rapp). And, perhaps because Mr. Rapp is also a YA novelist, it contained an enthusiastic shout-out to YA literature, with Sorrell exclaiming "M. T. Anderson is a genius! Burger Wuss is one of my favorite books of all time!" -- surely the first time such sentiments have been expressed on the New York stage.

So, as a person who likes caring about characters and getting involved with the action, I can't say I enjoyed "Essential Self-Defense." But it's a thought-provoking evening of theatre, for both its themes and its artistic choices.


  1. So is "Mulan" superior to "Singing in the Rain"? I'd say yes because you have singing, dancing and it's all drawn. (Actually I just like "Mulan" a heck of a lot)... which makes me meander on to...

    "I can't say I enjoyed "Essential Self-Defense." But it's a thought-provoking evening of theatre, for both its themes and its artistic choices."

    That's an interesting assessment. Was it worth it? Did it make you ponder things that made up for having to sit through it? I felt that way about Tim Burton's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" I was wincing every five minutes through the whole thing and wondering if I should be reading a book or doing laundry, but at the end somehow it all made sense.

    Lately when we've watched shows or gone to concerts they were "almost good". They had potential but there are just so many things that are missing or sloppy. Then again, picking apart a performance afterwards over coffee is half the fun, don't you think?

    Hope you are getting some fine spring weather,


    PS. I may be thwarted with my pile of perfect books for my super reader niece. My conservative Christian sister has informed me that she won't let my niece read "depressing" books. Harry Potter is dead out. (She told me it had witches and warlocks in it. I wanted to squeak back that they are wizards, not warlocks, but kept my mouth shut.) Sooooo… ”The Lightning Thief” is going to land me in trouble isn’t it? “The Singer of All Songs” might too. Suggestions?

  2. so, what would you make of video (art) used in, say, an opera context?

    Oh, how I wish I could afford these tickets...

    (To be fair, it's more a concert version, but looks impressive (based on the stills & video clips I've seen) & I suffer from a mild obsession with the "Tristan chord")

  3. I just read the HP article on CNN. Whoa--784 pages! That's a lot of continuity editing, there.

  4. Marilyn, I don't think any of the books you listed were "depressing" -- I guess both LIGHTNING and SINGER have character deaths/disappearances, but the characters come to grips with those themselves in the course of the narratives, and both have happy (if also cliffhangerish) endings. CEDAR could get you in trouble because I think there is a minor four-letter word in there somewhere (damn or hell) -- the only reason I know this is because someone objected to it in an review. But it's one of the most life-affirming books I know. (BOOK OF EVERYTHING is even more joyous, actually, but the religious attitude would go over like a lead elephant, I'm sure . . .)

    And yes it is, Lizzy. Yes it is.