Animals Out of Paper
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
August 3, 2008
As I was leaving the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, I couldn't help but think to myself "wow, Rajiv Joseph is one of the most refreshing new playwrights I've ever encountered." It's there that his incredibly funny and entirely satisfying new play Animals Out of Paper is running. Animals is the first play to be produced through Second Stage's partnership with the Time Warner Commissioning Program, and it seems to me they made a very good choice.
Animals tells the story of Ilana, a well-known origami artist, teacher, and author, in a rut after her husband's left her and her dog's run away. She's been commissioned to design a mesh heart sleeve, a device used to treat congestive heart failure (this was actually designed by an origamist named Robert Lang and the company Paracor Medical). Suddenly, she has two people who are giving her their hearts—Andy, a man who counts his blessings every day (and subsequently writes them down in a little notebook), and his genius calculus/origami prodigy student, Suresh, described as Jimi Hendrix if Hendrix could do origami.
But Joseph's play is not about a love triangle. Andy (played by the delightful and hilariously neurotic Jeremy Shamos), we figure out, is in love with Ilana based on the ideas that she's published in an origami book; Suresh is just looking for a steady mother figure. Utkarash Ambudkar (Suresh) is a very impressive young actor, speaking Joseph's tongue twisters of modern language with ease, freestyle rapping like a pro (he is, according to his biography, a member of the group Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop improv group), and even cleaning the entire set during one of the scene changes (one of the highlights of director Giovanna Sardelli's production).
As Ilana, Kellie Overbey gives a finely detailed and conflicted performance. Ilana is a difficult character to feel for—she brings everything upon herself by her own doing, and, in the end, she deserves what she gets. Overbey is so genuinely likeable and sincere that it makes the play's conclusion even more poignant.
There's no downtime in Sardelli's production with every moment accounted for, down to the scene changes, where just as much happens as during the scenes. As a result, the only full blackouts happen at the end of each act. Josh Bradford's lighting is appealing and appropriate, as are Amy Clark's costumes. Clark has given Ambudkar's Saresh the most outrageous design, detailed down to matching color shoelaces. Even the song choices (sound design by Bart Fasbender) fit in well.
Beowulf Borritt's set is one of the more creative ones in recent memory. There's a large hanging origami hawk, and a bookcase full of origami animals and other designs (donated by many artists who contributed them to the production). Ingeniously, walls are made up of enlarged folded and unfolded sheets of origami paper.
Animals Out of Paper is one of the most satisfying new works I've seen all year. Joseph is a fascinating voice in the world of theatre. He's crafted a substantial play, funny and sad, down-to-earth and unpretentious, with a great deal of meaning. A particularly striking sequence occurs when Ilana, still reeling from the pained memories of her past, discusses how every fold in a piece of paper is a memory. This has come after reading Andy's blessing book and figuring out how pained he is; hearing the story of how Suresh lost his mother. All three have the pain of memory in common, like so many do in the real world. Joseph's play is refreshingly genuine, and he's a playwright to look out for.