Animals Out of Paper is back in town for a limited run. If you missed this remarkable three-character play at the Lortel in 2009, or any of the many productions heaped with critical recognition since then—from Sydney to Fort Worth to Bangalore, you have another shot at it. (Go reserve a ticket. I’ll wait here for you.)
Playwright Rajiv Joseph (The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) uses the world of origami as his setting, folding us into the lives of Ilana, Andy, and Suresh. Ilana (Nairoby Otero) is a rock star in the origami world; she lectures, teaches, writes books about it. As the play opens, we find her crashed on the couch in her grim, trash-strewn studio. Her marriage is dead, and her ex husband got the flat; even her three-legged dog has fled. She’s surviving on Szechuan beef and barely answering the door.
Andy (David Beck) is a big fan of Ilana’s. He’s sweet, star struck, and enamored. He is also the treasurer, he insists, of the American Origami Association and is standing in the rain buzzing her studio, essentially forcing his way into her life.
Andy’s day job is teaching high school and his real motive for pushing into Ilana’s cranky presence is he wants her to help Suresh, his outstanding student with a dazzling gift for origami and calculus. Suresh (Maneesh Sasikumar) has many gifts that complicate his adolescent struggle.
The folding of paper squares into crafty birds and beasts is, of course, a metaphor. Joseph leads us down a clever path to consider the nature of creativity and the weight of life experience. He manages all that without a moment’s heavy hand.
There are several lovely speeches that linger long after you leave the theater. Suresh, in his street-kid, hip hop-artist persona makes the case for the organic nature of creativity. You don’t plan to fold, you fold.
Ilana has a heart breaking speech about what a square of paper feels, how, once it is folded, it cannot go back to being flat, to being what it used to be.
It is the best kind of script: artful without seeming to be, both funny and poignant, and breathtakingly spontaneous. I don’t know how you do that, but Rajiv Joseph has made a cottage industry of it.
A few minutes into the first act, it becomes clear that this is not some ragtag show gotten up in the church hall (which is what it looks like). We all come in from the cold only to be quickly disarmed. At the brief intermission, the audience is quiet and thoughtful; the sentiment, a kind of a forehead slapping: “Who knew?” The woman next to me said: “I didn’t expect this caliber of performance in this setting” and regretted she hadn’t called friends to come with her.
It is difficult to overpraise the cast. The performances are better than the training in the program might suggest so let’s share the credit with director Merri Milwe and again, the playwright.
Nairoby Otero’s Ilana is a bitch-on-wheels when we meet her, fending off these intrusive, bothersome men. She manages to shift out of that crouch and blooms into a woman ready to get it together.
David Beck’s Andy is annoying, yet somehow winning. At the curtain call, just for a second, I looked at Beck and thought who is this guy? He’d created such a completely other physical persona for Andy that I almost didn’t know him.
Maneesh Sasikumar is Suresh. He is able to show us all the conflict and madness of adolescence complicated by an outsized intelligence. He’s a ticking time bomb and an engaging boy at once.
The space is challenging, as the old church hall still has the dust of bingo parlor about it. Set designer Ran Xia swings for the fences using every inch to advantage. This may be the only play ever to list an Origami Consultant in the credits. So, Talo Kawasaki, well done!
Playwright Rajiv Joseph has a terrific track record. This one is amazing and he has a new one coming. See you there?
Animals Out of Paper – By Rajiv Joseph; directed by Merri Milwe
WITH: David Beck (Andy), Nairoby Otero (Ilana), Maneesh Sasikumar (Suresh).
Designed by Ran Xia; lighting by Claudia Toth, assistant director Katie Falter, and origami consultant Talo Kawasaki. Presented by YOLO! Productions and The Great Griffon at the McAlpin Hall at the West Park Church, 165 West 86th Street at Amsterdam Avenue through February 28th. Running time is about 2 hours with one intermission.