09/28/2012 10:37 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

First Nighter: Adam Rapp's 'Through the Yellow Hour' Strikes Home

Try instantly to disregard the irritating population-under-siege surround-environment that author-director Adam Rapp and set designer Andromache Chalfant have jerry-rigged throughout the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre for Through the Yellow Hour. Once the play itself gets underway, it confirms yet again that the dramatist is someone not easily dismissed.

And believe you me, he and Chalfant foolishly stack the case against themselves when they ask patrons to enter the claustrophobic, brown-streaked-walled auditorium past ushers in hazmat suits. Part of the problem with the conceit is that most ticket buyers have been here, done this post-apocalypse thing before. Rather than be reduced to anxious forebodings about the future, they merely think how twee, even laughable, it all is.

Luckily, the play begins, and a set that never needed to be extended beyond the actual stage becomes the broken-down apartment in which Ellen (Hani Furstenberg), a nurse, is doing her considerable best to survive a continuing invasion of New York City.

The situation is so dire that within the first minute or so Ellen is confronted by, and shoots to death, a shaggy, hulking intruder (Brian Mendes) who's come in through the dingy window of the upstage room she uses as bedroom and kitchen. It's where in a couple of cabinets she keeps her drug supply locked up and her (seemingly endless) supply of tinned peaches more readily accessible. (The downstage room contains a tub at its center that does get much use by fully-frontally-nude actors.)

Leaving the dead man collapsed in a corner -- he gives the room "texture," Ellen later explains -- she goes on to play tough-minded host to several visitors, all of whom she questions thoroughly about their reasons for arriving and a few of whom she greets with that now-smoking gun at play until they've satisfied her about their lack of imminent danger.

The first of these is Maude (Danielle Slavick), an addict who's been sent by a local official called China, because she has an infant to be fostered. Ellen has agreed to care for the baby girl (there's apparently a twin whose whereabouts is never explained) so that the mother can carry on her derelict ways unencumbered -- but not until after offering Ellen sexual services in exchange for more drugs.

The next desperate guest is Hakim (Alok Tewari), a nerve-wracked man escaped from somewhere nearby where he's been held captive with Ellen's missing husband Paul. Hakim reports in harrowing detail that Paul, a teacher whom Ellen clearly loves, has been tortured and killed by the faction now controlling the city and from whom much is heard through constant gunfire and muffled explosions provided by sound designer Christian Frederickson and lighting designer Keith Parham.

A final trio consists of an Aryan-type woman in immaculate white suit calling herself Claire (Joanne Tucker), a doctor (Matt Pilleci) spending time examining Ellen's young charge and 14 year-old African-American Darius (Vladimir Versailles). They're part of an exchange Ellen has sought through China in which she's giving up Claire's infant to be raised for her eventual fertility by the ruling regime. Ellen's taking in the naïve Darius with whom she, as a widow wanting to find what fulfillment she can in her constrained life, sees a very specific kind of redemptive future.

Because Rapp's action takes place entirely in the squalid East Village, Manhattan rooms Ellen warily and vigilantly inhabits, nothing is seen of the conquerors to whom she and others refer as "Eggheads." As Rapp has it, these Eggheads have nothing to do with the intellectuals bald Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson put into the language during the long ago 1950s. Quite the contrary, they're the members of the cruel, repressive force who go around in egg-shaped headpieces castrating any male they capture and generally decimating the citizenry.

Here's where Rapp inserts his political pitch -- a slant that could be said to represent the final frightening gasp of the military-industrial complex about which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned a half century ago. When Ellen finally gets around to discussing the invaders, she explains they're promoted as being foreign but that the received wisdom is those visible to the cowering public are only a front for a "corporation."

A-hah, a patron thinks at the revelation. It's soap-box time. But it isn't -- not even when the pristine Claire is on hand and suggesting the advent of a "genetically-cleansed" superior race and the ironic It-can't-happen-here theme is mooted. No, the strength of Through the Yellow Hour (the title refers to a brief daily period when something of a truce is declared) is in its determined focus on one women's entirely credible battle to keep herself safe as well as those she decides are suffering as much as, or more than, she is.

Rapp's foremost and deepest concern is the endurance of humanity when it's put to an utmost test. Ellen, often at her wit's end, represents that humanity. Her struggle doesn't always go as she'd like. Hakim, for one, runs afoul of its occasional failings. Also Rapp has Ellen undergo an hallucination involving the dead man and Hakim he might have avoided. Nevertheless, she emerges as a contemporary heroine -- certainly as Furstenberg unflinchingly plays her without once leaving the stage and even eventually bathing in the tub.

Rapp is one of our most compulsive dramatists, an author forever running the risk of writing too much. He's also a rare playwright in that he can effectively direct his own work. Ellen as a post-modern Joan of Arc is where he achieves undeniable success.