Adam Rapp's new work, Essential Self-Defense, at first appears to venture away from the writer's usual absurdist penchant. The show, a co-production between Playwrights Horizons and Edge Theater, gets off to a great start, full of irreverence and clarity. Bloggs, U.S.A., is facing a crisis among its citizens: a dozen middle school students have been abducted, one at a time, creating a sense of helpless anomie. Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh, Tony-nominated for Doubt) enrolls in a self-defense course. There she becomes such a good student that she knocks the teeth out of Yul (Paul Sparks), the human dummy.
In what serves as a meet-cute, Sadie then becomes transfixed by Yul, and asks him out. She tears him away from his cocooned life in an underground bunker, sans functioning toilet, and brings him out to the quirky karaoke bar she favors. Instead of building chemistry though, Rapp and director Carolyn Cantor devote much time to Sadie's friends, bar owner Sorrell (Cheryl Lynn Bowers) and, later, her Russian poet husband Isaak (Michael Chernus). Watching these characters pretend to improvise original songs to which they must rock out provides some initial humor, but in no way alerts the audience as to why Sadie might connect to any of these people, or why Yul is so staunchly against The Man. (Additionally, Cantor should not have blocked her characters to face upstage away from her audience.)
Still, this first act shows potential and builds interest. Then all of Essential loses focus in the overlong second act, full of gratuitous moments and red herrings. Why does Yul constantly boil eggs and use his shower to go to the bathroom? What's with the disappearing children? Why is Isaak so mysterious? What is that bizarr roller-disco dream sequence? By the end of this play, when nearly three hours have elapsed, most of these questions have proven themselves to be inconsequential.
Both lead actors fare better than their material, though they can only guide it so far. Sparks' vocal patterns - an odd hybrid of child, robot, and autistic savant - are a clear representation of the narrow and rigid ways he thinks. Goldenhersh's tentative delivery is appropriate, too, for Sadie, who often appears vulnerable and haunted by fear. Watching them together is a treat.
But as Essential becomes less and less about the two of them, I wish Cantor, or Rapp, or somebody had thought to exercise some degree of self-censorship before this runaway train derailed so seriously. There's no defense for that.