by Bill Marx
“The way of the Samurai is a natural way of the Universe, Ma, and to learn it, one must live one’s life from first to last in self-control. I know all about that stuff now.”
— Wynne in Adam Rapp’s “Stone Cold Dead Serious”
Just how far are American playwrights from dramatizing a culture buffeted and manhandled by uncertainty, assaulted by fears of economic catastrophe and successful terrorism attacks? In other words, just how shallow is our theater’s response to changing times? The Gurnet Theatre Project’s energetic Boston premiere (closed) of Adam Rapp’s allegedly dark comedy “Essential Self-Defense” suggests the distance between contemporary reality and theatrical fantasy can be measured in light years.
“Essential Self-Defense”: Love at First Kick in the Head
Like a hack politician, Rapp placates audiences by lazily exploiting bottom-line anxieties, caricaturing our primal fears of fragility: a play that’s ostensibly about a country crazed by intimations of menace proffers no genuine hazard or edginess whatsoever.
Rapp’s script plugs his usual Save-the-Samurai theme – self-control is necessary but impossible in a debased and bedraggled America – into a sitcom romance featuring an enigmatic homegrown radical. A laconic loner named Yul Carroll (!), a disgruntled ex-employee of the Zenith corporation, spends his days injecting explosive substances into Easter eggs. He lives an ascetic life in a rat-infested hovel, rants about the dehumanizing American machine, and displays surprising bursts of physical strength. (He might as well wear an “I am a Bomb-thrower” tee-shirt.)
Employed as a dummy in a self-defense class, Yul grows to accept a platonic relationship (Samurai eschew sex) with the sweet-natured Sadie after she accidentally knocks out one of his teeth. The two-ton irony is that the bedeviled Sadie, haunted by paralyzing fears about a Big Bad Wolf, sees Yul as a potential protector. She so desperately hopes her love will save him and herself she doesn’t suspect (or won’t let herself see) that the guy may be dangerous. Sadie’s ditsy innocence makes her vulnerable but it is also her strength — here is another in a long line of American plays that celebrate cluelessness
Of course, the audience is supposed to wonder if Yul is a culturally cool rebel, like Kurt Cobain, or evil, like Timothy McVeigh. But Yul is more preachy than scary – in fact, his tiring tirades sound a lot like Rapp’s rote political rap. Yul could easily have written sections of Rapp’s note for his play “Finer Noble Gases”: “Although we are believed to be a great nation, we are in many ways a cold, unfeeling, consumption-obsessed country whose machinery often produces innocent casualties.” I assume the playwright sees himself as a member of the Cobain school of agitation, so Yul serves as the playwright’s fantasy twin, an anti-hero whose inhuman self-discipline is focused on taking revenge on America the Soulless.
Nothing in the play questions Yul’s belief in the country’s robotic inanity; the characters around him are either too banal to question what he babbles or they react with a visceral hostility tailored to make them unsympathetic. Sadie’s debilitating case of nerves remains a free-floating anxiety that’s never explored – a concrete trauma would work against the script’s adolescent light-headedness, a desperate zaniness that serves as Rapp’s defense mechanism against seriously looking into the use and abuse of fear.
The Rock Band — strategically placed to woo younger audience members
Instead, panic is satirized in a red herring of a witch hunt, a subplot about missing high school children. The up-in-arms community suspects Yul, which sets up the vicious dementia of Kleig the Butcher, whose hatred of Yul (and defense of the homeland) results in a weird knife fight in which even Sadie, suddenly transformed into a mini-Samurai, gets into the macho action. The violence is only another part of the silliness, which includes a roller skating sequence, a Russian immigrant comic stereotype who spouts malapropisms, a rock band, improvised music and lyrics.
The sloppy antics are entertaining – it was heartening to see a Thursday night performance filled with lots of young people in the audience. Chelsea Cipolla, as Sadie, started out jittery but ended up investing some humanity in her character; unfortunately, as Yul, Adam Garcia’s minimalism grated by the time the diffuse second act arrives.
Besides suggesting how far American playwrights are from dramatizing, rather than packaging, politics and angst, “Essential Self-Defense” shows how depressingly far Rapp has fallen as a dramatist – his genuinely lyrical first script, “Nocturne,” was followed by the dopey absurdism of “Animals and Plants” and now the caricature carnage of “Essential Self-Defense.” Is this the best that American playwrights can do with terrorism — take a defense posture against reality?