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Review: In Letters of Suresh, Four People Search for Connection Through Snail Mail

Rajiv Joseph's new play is a follow-up to his 2008 drama Animals Out of Paper.

Ramiz Monsef in Letters of Suresh
(© Joan Marcus)

It feels like a lifetime ago that I saw Rajiv Joseph's play Animals Out of Paper. It was 2008 and I was writing for a website called NYTheatre.com, an outlet that is now so defunct even the famed internet "Wayback Machine" has a hard time finding it. I was recently searching for my review of that Second Stage Theatre Uptown production, just to see what younger me had to say, but alas, all I've got are few sentences handpicked out of context by a book editor and used at the front of the published edition of the script: "Animals Out of Paper is one of the most satisfying new works I've seen all year…funny and sad, down-to-earth and unpretentious, with a great deal of meaning…Joseph's play is refreshingly genuine."

I'd like to use a lot of those same words to describe Letters Of Suresh, Joseph's new follow-up to Animals, which Second Stage is premiering at their 43rd Street home base through October 24. You needn't have seen the original to follow and enjoy this lovely sequel, which, 13 years later, would have been a very lofty ask of an audience. Joseph provides any sort of contextual information you may need as exposition, although those who did venture up to the McGinn/Cazale Theatre more than a decade ago and cherish the memory, like I do, will find themselves once again in the thrall of a mesmerizing protagonist and a handful of delightful Easter Eggs.

Animals, in brief, followed the tempestuous relationships between an origami master, her gifted prodigy Suresh, and his sweet calculus teacher. The only hold over here is Suresh (Ramiz Monsef), now an enigmatic twentysomething who has, for years, had an equally stormy correspondence with Father Mitsuo Hashimoto (Thom Sesma), an elderly Japanese priest. A play ago, Father Hashimoto was reduced to tears simply by watching Suresh fold a bird out of a yellow piece of paper. Now, he's dead, and his grand-niece, Melody (Ali Ahn), is trying to get in touch with Suresh to inform him of both that news and the fact that Father Hashimoto not only kept every single letter, but the yellow bird, too, and it's all in her possession. This sends everyone, including Suresh's older former lover Amelia (Kellie Overbey) on journeys of self-discovery as they search for a tangible connection to each other.

This is a play and production that are filled with longing, a trait that all four actors have intrinsically imbued in their performances in different ways. For Ahn's loquacious Melody, it's an inability to sit still. For Overbey (who played the origami master in Animals), it's operating at an uncomfortable distance from others. Sesma, who only appears briefly at the end, is tranquil, but not necessarily at peace. And Monsef's Suresh can't stop moving around, searching for something to hang his hat on and call home. It's a hard play to do — the characters rarely, if ever, actually interact, and May Adrales's swift production underscores the distance between the characters through the use of a very wide set by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. But it all seems effortless, like they were born with the words in Joseph's sweet, even-handed script.

I was surprised by how moved I was to watch a play about difficulties in communication now, but we are in the wake of a pandemic that cut everyone off from each other, and we are all just starting to re-meet our friends and colleagues after a long time away. That extends to theater, too, as we gather for our first shows back, and this uncommonly graceful play is a very nice welcome back.

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