On the offensive

Playwright-novelist Adam Rapp lets down his guard with Essential Self-Defense.

MOVIN’ ON UP Downtowner Rapp gets ready to gentrify.

MOVIN’ ON UP Downtowner Rapp gets ready to gentrify. Photograph: Joan Marcus

If age and experience haven't exactly mellowed playwright Adam Rapp, they're certainly propelling him to new places. One of those is midtown, where the author of some of the rawest dramas to hit Off Broadway in years—including 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist Red Light Winter—is receiving his first production in the Theater District. Rapp has brought along members of his downtown posse for Essential Self-Defense, a coproduction of the established Playwrights Horizons and upstart Edge Theater Company, where Rapp is the resident playwright. Directing is Edge head Carolyn Cantor, and most of the cast has worked with Rapp before, including leads Paul Sparks and Heather Goldenhersh, whose roles were written for them.

This is a crossover that the dramatist, 38, deems overdue. "Even though I've had success and respect, it's eluded me as to why I haven't had a big not-for-profit take me under its wing before," he says over breakfast in an East Village caf. "When I started out, I was hoping to wind up at Playwrights Horizons one day—there's this sense of being canonized as a modern American playwright."

Perhaps he was never invited because his plays are often peppered with more nudity, violence and embarrassing bodily functions than most theater subscribers would tolerate. But Playwrights Horizons director Tim Sanford says he has wanted to present Rapp's work for years—and wouldn't mind attracting Edge's younger audience, too. "I've been reading Adam since he was a pup," boasts Sanford, who commissioned Red Light Winter but lost it to commercial producers. "He's so brave and original, and he keeps true to himself by not selling out his voice."

Indeed, Rapp still puts his outcast characters through the wringer, but now their world is more brothers Grimm than just plain grim. A dark fairy tale with rock songs (which Rapp cowrote), Essential Self-Defense is set in a Midwestern town called Bloggs, where children are disappearing. Addressing this crisis are two unlikely heroes: a basement dweller who works as an attack dummy in a self-defense class, and the shy woman drawn to him after knocking out his tooth. Rapp calls it a "weird love story."

He mulled over the play for some time, drawn to the idea of a literal battle of the sexes and inspired by avant-garde auteur Richard Maxwell (House, Boxing 2000). "I was intrigued by this hyperreal, abstract world that he creates," Rapp says. "I had this idea to have a girl in a self-defense class beating on this guy, and it was going to be scored by a drummer. I didn't know why—the image just felt right." A friend, set designer Christine Jones, mentioned a class she'd taken in which women would pummel a guy in padding as commands were shouted through a bullhorn. Rapp replicated that scenario in his play, which continued to take shape after September 11, as he saw friends in the Midwest preparing for disaster by enrolling in first-response workshops.

Such a mix of screwball romance and creepy menace seems like a break from Rapp's typical urban squalor. Cantor—who directed Rapp's Stone Cold Dead Serious in 2003also notices a new direction. "The language is really heightened," she says. "The other day we were rehearsing, and it suddenly felt like we were doing an opera."

Opera is actually one of the few genres that the tall, athletically built Illinois native—a former basketball player and reform-school student—has yet to tackle. Beyond his 11 produced plays, Rapp writes novels (his first adult title, The Year of Endless Sorrows, was published in January), is working on two graphic novels and has been a creative consultant on Showtime's The L Word. Apparently not busy enough, he also directs both for the stage (Julian Sheppard's recent Los Angeles) and big screen (2006's Winter Passing and an upcoming film version of his two-hander Blackbird), strums guitar in a band called Less and may teach playwriting at Yale this fall. By his estimate, he has cranked out 30 dramas in the past 14 years. "There's a lot nobody knows about under my bed," he admits.

As his irons glow in multiple fires, Rapp will always call himself a "novelist who fell in love with the theater." That's due in part to his younger brother, Anthony, one of the original cast members of Rent, and to his own desire for connection. "I was really shy when I got to the city, and I just wanted to be around people more," he reflects. "I felt real contact with people I'd meet in the theater—because they're all misfits like me."

Essential Self-Defense is playing at Playwrights Horizons through April 15.