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Animals Out of Paper

Rajiv Joseph's exhilarating play examines the tough subjects of loss, pain, and the balm of creativity.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kellie Overbey, and Jeremy Shamos
in Animals Out of Paper
(© Joan Marcus)
Rajiv Joseph has found an exhilarating way to examine the tough subjects of loss, pain, and the balm of creativity with Animals Out of Paper, now premiering at the Second Stage Theatre Uptown. In this wise and richly layered work, the practice of origami is discussed and demonstrated; but significantly more than that, the three-hander operates as a metaphor for numerous things -- from crafting a meaningful life out of positive and negative components to Joseph's snazzily extruding art out of raw, often corrosive ideas.

On a rainy day, recently divorced master origamist Ilana (Kellie Overbey) opens the door of her paper-cluttered studio to calculus teacher Andy (Jeremy Shamos). He is delivering an American Origami brochure, but also declares he's a long-time fan of her book. Practically gaga from proximity to his culture heroine, Andy confesses he has another reason for his visit; he wants Ilana to tutor his troubled student Suresh (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who has lost interest in everything but origami after the accidental death of his mother.

Ilana is initially reluctant but accepts the assignment, and is soon involved with both interlopers. She's engrossed in Suresh because he is clearly inspired as a neophyte origamist, and she's caught up in Andy because she's read the contents of a small binder in which he's jotted down what he considers his blessings, and detects the hurt pulsing through the book. Ultimately, all three people -- uncertain how to deal with the hurts they've suffered -- try haltingly but gallantly to help one another recover enough equilibrium to carry on.

Director Giovanna Sardelli does fine folding of her own with the production's look; Amy Clark's wardrobe for Suresh is especially funk-happy and Beowulf Borrit's set is consistenly clever. She bends the cast adroitly as well, Indeed, Overbey and Shamos give the best performances of their already illustrious careers; both performers are commendably accomplished at implying how much internal devastation runs under the external calm they fight so hard to represent. Meanwhile, Ambudkar's portrait of late-adolescent mood swings has more edges than the Tyrannosaurus Rex that Suresh produces.

Is anything wrong with Animals Out of Paper? Maybe in Andy's first scene he comes on a shade too fey for audience comfort, and the particulars of the melancholy ending for these three characters have yet to be ironed out. On the other hand, ironing out playwriting of this high caliber would be nobody's idea of an improvement.