Have you heard the name Rajiv Joseph? Neither had I until his latest play, Animals Out of Paper, a tender, origami-flavored play, opened this week as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown Series.
Devoted by and large to new American writing, Second Stage has produced works by some well-known playwrights in its time – Edward Albee, Eric Bogosian, and Terrence McNally to name a few – and though Joseph’s name isn’t yet on the tips of the New York theatergoing public’s tongues, it deserves to be.
Joseph has written a play that is alternately hilarious and heartfelt, exploring within its multifaceted folds the intricacies of love and loss through three very different characters. Ilana, played adeptly by Kellie Overbey, an origami master and published author – her book is called Folding What I Lost – now finds herself divorced and living in her studio, traipsing around in her robe and leggings amongst empty takeout boxes, crumpled newspapers, and dirty laundry.
On a rainy afternoon, she’s visited out of the blue by Andy Froling, a high school calculus teacher and treasurer of American Origami, an organization which holds an origami conference each year. He’s there for all sorts of reasons, some of them business-related, others more personal. Andy is soon revealed as an incredibly lovable, winsomely neurotic presence within the play. He keeps a journal in which he records his blessings – everything from a particularly handy rake he’s just bought to Ilana herself and her book, a favorite of his.
Things get complicated when Andy asks Ilana to tutor a student of his, a brilliant kid named Suresh , played by Utkarsh Ambudkar, who, after the death of his mother, has maintained his steadily stellar grades but lost a degree of enthusiasm. Initially skeptical, Ilana agrees based on the merit of some of the designs Andy has brought along. Though things are initially rough between Ilana and Suresh (he tells her to “suck his dick,” for one), eventually a mutual respect emerges.
Much is made of Suresh’s “street” posturing. He raps and wears a hoodie, constantly cranking up the music on his headphones. Ilana asks him, “Why do you talk like that?” But when he speaks with his widower father via cell phone from her apartment, it’s clear that Suresh’s character has a depth beyond what Ilana can see.
When themes could seem simplistic, or even didactic, Joseph saves face by playing against expectations. It is soon revealed that Ilana, not merely a paper-folding artist, is in the planning stages of building a “mesh heart sleeve” on commission for an experimental medical procedure, a device that will internally unfold, delivering life-saving measures. The play pits Suresh and Ilana’s dueling temperaments against one another: Ilana thinks origami is a fugue, written down and thought out to a T, but Suresh never uses models, preferring instead to “freestyle.” Their complex teacher-student relationship is what makes the play crackle in its second half, though Andy is never far out of the picture, played with wide-eyed glee by Jeremy Shamos.
The play feels at home within the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, an incredibly intimate venue. Beowolf Boritt’s simple, functional set design complements the small space, allowing for the visual expansion of Ilana’s windowless Boston apartment by way of oversized hanging sheets of creased paper. “It’s like a paper zoo,” Suresh exclaims later in the play, an observation congruous with Ilana’s overflowing shelf full of folded paper creatures. The production utilized over 25 origamists in assembling its sets and props, and the attention to detail is evident.
Though a predictable ending dampens the overall effect of the play, the writing on display here is crisp and well-considered. I was utterly captivated as Ilana spoke to her young charge about origami folds as impressions of memory and experience. Paper, she tells him, has no memory until it’s creased. She holds up an already-folded square. “Too many things have happened to it,” she tells him. Perhaps that’s true of her character as well, a woman who’s been hurt time and time again, folding what she’s lost in the wake of tragedy. As I took the journey of Rajiv Joseph’s simple, touching play, however, I felt as if I’d gained something, however humble in scale, as if I’d been lost in a fold for two hours, the memory of which would leave an indelible impression.