Heather Goldenhersh and Paul Sparks
in Essential Self-Defense
(© Joan Marcus)
Heather Goldenhersh and Paul Sparks
in Essential Self-Defense
(© Joan Marcus)
Adam Rapp may be premiering his new play Essential Self-Defense at the midtown venue Playwrights Horizons, but his offbeat and disturbing new work definitely shows off his downtown roots. Co-presented by Edge Theater, where Rapp is resident playwright, this often brilliant show is receiving a first-class production, courtesy of director Carolyn Cantor and a terrific cast led by Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh.

Yul Carroll (Sparks) is a misfit on the fringes of society, working as an attack dummy at The Big Beat Down Self-Defense Studio. We first see him being pummeled by the mild-mannered Sadie Day (Goldenhersh), who knocks out his tooth. By way of apology, she invites him out for a drink at Kiff's Karaoke, a bar that doesn't do traditional karaoke, but does have people perform all-original songs, backed by a live band. Yul and Sadie's strange romance is offset by reports of disappearing junior high school children, a phantom wolf that's stalking Sadie, and Yul's Easter egg project that is more dangerous than it initially appears.

Rapp taps into contemporary cultural anxieties, with Yul as both social critic and maverick anti-hero. The playwright has created an off-kilter environment filled with odd, yet compelling characters. His work is more than a little surreal, and Cantor knows just how to bring out the play's dark humor as well as its more menacing undertones.

Sparks, a talented and versatile actor who never fails to impress, has crafted a low-key yet mesmerizing characterization for Yul. It has a cartoonish quality, but the pain and loneliness at the core of the portrayal makes it heartbreakingly poignant, as well. In one of the funniest and most moving sequences, Yul roller skates around the stage with such a look of joy on his face that the audience can't help but smile.

Goldenhersh, best known for her work as Sister James in Doubt, is also perfectly cast, capturing Sadie's awkwardness, fear, and desperation without ever making her seem pathetic. Among the supporting players, Joel Marsh Garland is a standout as the creepy Klieg the Butcher. Guy Boyd also makes a favorable impression as Chuck the Barber. Michael Chernus overplays his Russian accent a bit as poet/custodian Isaak Glinka, yet is still quite good. Cheryl Lynn Bowers has a strong presence as Sorrell, Kiff's mistress of ceremonies.

Ray Rizzo and Lucas Papaelias make up the two-man band, playing drums and guitar, respectively. They're also credited as composers and lyricists, along with Rapp. The music, which has an alt-rock quality that occasionally veers into punk, made me wish there was a cast album to go along with the show. Garland's solo, "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," is particularly memorable. Rizzo and Papaelias also underscore other scenes within the play, and characters break into song even outside the confines of Kiff's Karaoke.

Ben Stanton's lighting adds to the rock concert feel of the production. David Korins, who is one of Edge's cofounders, has turned in another terrific set that includes detailed interiors for Yul's and Sadie's contrasting dwellings. Miranda Hoffman's costumes are likewise wonderful -- particularly Yul's yellow padded self-defense suit, which is ridiculously comic.