Essential Self-Defense

Yul Carroll lives in a solitary bomb shelter of a basement. Yul Carroll carefully stacks homemade Easter eggs in a padlocked cabinet. Yet Yul Carroll -- the fascinating fellow at the center of Adam Rapp's new play Essential Self-Defense -- has a problem unrelated to his oviform obsession or the thyroid condition that renders him as animated as an automated voice answering system: He is the creation of a playwright who seems to lose interest in Yul and the play he's in long before its dead-end conclusion.

The first act is packaged as a winning, offbeat romance between two oddball loners: Sadie (Heather Goldenhersh), a frightened, bookish woman taking a self-defense class, and Yul (Paul Sparks), the live-action dummy who weathers her blows in a padded yellow biohazard suit. They meet cute when she inadvertently knocks out one of his teeth, and then deepen their relationship at Wingin' It Wednesdays karaoke, where you sing an original song and the live band (Lucas Papaelias and Ray Rizzo) catches up with you.

So what if Yul's endless stream of paranoid musings, Sadie's irrational terror, and the colorful supporting cast (the malevolent blood-stained butcher, the Russian poet-janitor, etc.) all feel too preciously sculpted to exist anywhere but a high-concept theatrical world? Rapp's writing is legitimately funny; director Carolyn Cantor paces the proceedings perfectly; and Goldenhersh lends her character almost enough charm to elide the plot holes, while Sparks, conjuring the comedian Michael Showalter, has a wonderfully unselfconscious way with a self-conscious character.

But then there's the second act. After a refreshingly unhurried introduction, it's as if the play suddenly wakes up and decides it needs plot -- and nothing else. What seemed like an obvious red herring in the first act is puffed up and placed center, driving the play through and past fairy-tale and dream symbolism it doesn't actually engage to reach an ending to which it seems indifferent. What was interesting about the characters is abandoned as they begin behaving not according to their own idiosyncratic logic but the dictates of a clumsily imposed plot.

The play's lesson is ultimately an unsettling one: Learn to defend yourself in this world, because you can't count on anyone to be there for you -- not a friend, a lover, or, least of all, a playwright.

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons,

416 W. 42nd St., NYC.

March 28-April 15. Tue.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 2 p.m. (No performance Thu., March 29.)

(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.

Casting by Alaine Alldaffer.