Essential Self-Defense: My Funny Valentine
Somewhere inside Adam Rapp's absurdist quirkfest known as Essential Self-Defense is a positively adorable romantic comedy of weirdness just aching to shed about a half-hour of excess material, a handful of trying-too-hard moments and an unsatisfying ending. Still, director Carolyn Cantor's production that coats dark surrealism with a bubblegum sweetness and features the hilarious pairing of Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh as would-be lovers in a dangerous world, emphasizes the play's many terrific features.
The old device of "meeting cute" was never quite so wacky. Social misfit Yul Carroll (Sparks), who works as a human dummy in a women's self-defense class, gets his tooth knocked out by over-anxious student Sadie Day (Goldenhersh). To apologize, the soft-spoken Katie invites him for a drink at her favorite hangout; a punkish/new agey/sometimes acoustic open mic karaoke bar hosted by foul-mouthed school librarian Sorrell Haze (a fiercely energetic Cheryl Lynn Bowers) where only original songs are allowed. As the underdressed duo of Bob Beard and Todd, drummer Ray Rizzo and guitarist Lucas Papaelias (who co-authored the play's songs along with Rapp) play along to whatever each customer is singing and cast members improvise as back-up vocalists.
Yul makes a quick impression with his angry song with no title ("Count the ways you were pre-approved! / Count the ways a body can be moved!) and by calmly standing up to the menacing Klieg the Butcher (Joel Marsh Garland, with a look and menace that resembles Bluto from the old Popeye cartoons) who had previously regaled the crowd with his song called "Klieg the Butcher's Right Hand Is the Strongest Human Appendage in the World, So Don't Even Think About Challenging Him or He Will Crush Your Bones." (It's catchy.) Later on we meet Sorrell's gregarious Russian poet boyfriend (Michael Chernus) and the kindly barber known as Chuck the Barber (Guy Boyd).
Sadie grows more and more smitten with Yul, despite his negative view of nearly everything in the world ("Talent is a fallacy created by gym teachers and Top 40 Radio druids."), his unusual choice of reading material (Three Hundred and Seventy Five Thousand, Four Hundred and Thirteen Ways to Make a Bomb) and the fact that he's always preparing hard boiled eggs which seem to have something to do with a mysterious "art" project. There's a certain fearlessness about him that comforts her admittedly irrational sense of hyper-vulnerability. ("It's just this unmanageable crushing feeling of terror and helplessness.") Yul believes her fears are intentionally manufactured by a government/corporate alliance that pairs violent media content with comforting commercials. ("If I eat that Quarter Pounder with cheese then maybe I'll forget that I'm about thirty years away from dealing with my own sedimentary rot.")
In the background of their awkward romance is the fearful news that one by one, over a dozen local junior high students have disappeared.
The two leads are quite heart tugging. Sparks plays Yul with a sour deadpan delivery that sounds like he's swallowing every word and looks like each one tastes like vinegar. The slightest variances keep it from being a one-note performance and turns him into an oddly sympathetic anti-hero. As Sadie, Goldenhersh admires him with an adoring shyness and child-like wonder. She is bravely vulnerable, battling her insecurities at every timid step.
Cantor's sunny production (I especially enjoyed the roller-skating fantasy sequence) nicely undercuts the grimness of the story and the cast performs with freewheeling buoyancy.
David Korins' set nicely contrasts the forced cheerfulness of Sadie's bright yellow, powder blue trimmed kitchen with the indifferent gloom of Yul's dark lonely room. Miranda Hoffman's costumes are nicely cartoonish. I especially liked Sorrell's ensemble of a Laura Ashley-type dress accented with a black corset and combat boots, but the showcase piece of the evening is Yul's yellow full-body protective suit, which makes him look like a marshmallow man.
If Rapp means for his play to be seriously saying something about universal paranoia and distrust of the system, it's not surfacing above the cuteness and humor. Despite the message lurking somewhere, Essential Self-Defense is far more entertaining than poignant.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Paul Sparks