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Animals Out of Paper

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Beck and Nairoby Otero.
Photo by Shira Friedman

Can paper feel pain? As strange as that question may sound, it has real implications for the three (human) characters in Rajiv Joseph's 2008 play Animals Out of Paper. All of them can—and do—hurt, obviously, but they're so consumed with the care and practice of origami that they forget, just when they should most remember, that humans are affected by their choices and their woes just as paper is never exactly the same after it's been creased. And in the fine new revival of the play at the McAlpin Hall at the West Park Church, that pain is forever front and center.

Not that it's not obscured at times. Only Ilana (Nairoby Otero) is truly in touch with it, and she's slowly being buried by it. One of the country's foremost authorities on origami, she's withdrawn from it and from life following her separation from her husband and the disappearance of her dog, leaving only endless naps and towering piles of Chinese takeout as evidence of her existence. So she's more than a little stunned when she's visited by Andy (David Beck), the treasurer of the American Origami organization, who's come to deliver her some paperwork he deems essential.

Though, past first glance, that may not be why Andy is really there. Beyond her mail getting returned and her lapsed dues, and the interest he expresses in having her mentor his star calculus student, Suresh, Andy seems particularly interested in her. Jittery, uncertain, and tongue-tied around her, Andy also leaves at her studio (where she's lived since the breakup) the precious book in which for years he's been writing down every blessing he experiences. When Ilana reads it, she gets to know him better than anyone else, and sees his him as more complex than his shy, happy-go-lucky exterior might suggest, but also risks violating his privacy and trust.

Nairoby Otero and Maneesh Sasikumar.
Photo by Shira Friedman

Once Ilana agrees to work with Suresh (Maneesh Sasikumar), who's the instinctive folding genius to her meticulous planner, she learns that there's something deeper and sadder buried beneath his angry-genius fa├žade, too, and something that unlocks feelings in him he doesn't let out for just anyone. He's just finishing high school and, if nothing else, a spiritual competitor for Andy's affections, so that's problem enough; that he offers Ilana the intellectual satisfaction Andy can't sets the three up for confrontation once Ilana elects to take Suresh, and not him, to an important conference being held in Nagasaki.

That choice of location is not accidental, by the way, as we discover in the haunting (and disturbing) final scenes set in the trip's aftermath, but nothing in Animals Out of Paper is. Joseph has composed a tight three-hander in which his characters' spirits are inextricably wrapped in their art, letting us see the myriad ways they deal with inspiration and disappointment, and, most important, the search for their truest selves. That's a difficult journey, given just how little any of them is willing to admit about who he or she really is—this causes problems, of course—but watching it play out is itself a rewarding one.

Set designer Ran Xia has made extravagant use of the sprawling playing space, capturing the cluttered essence of Ilana's living situation as well as the emptiness of her soul; even the acoustics of the room, which early on threaten to swallow lines, seem to grow sharper and warmer as the relationships better jell. Merri Milwe's direction maximizes intimacy, letting the various scenes between two characters (all three rarely share the stage together) enhance the emotional curiosity or hesitancy from which they all suffer.

Beck is charming as Andy, eliciting all of his naturally nervous qualities in actions as sweeping as confronting his idol or as tiny as donning or removing his jacket; he really seems to treat it as though he believes it doesn't want to touch him, which adds a sad pathos to a man you can't help but like. Otero tends to mistake brittle for lost, lessening the aura of defeat that surrounds her in much of the first act, but she's much stronger dealing with the implications of the men's actions and hers in the scenes to follow. There's a bit of hard-sell in Sasikumar's portrayal of the cocky Suresh that thankfully evaporates once we need to see just how much weight the young man must carry.

It's not easy for him, or for Andy or Ilana, to maintain the illusion of coping, and when falls, as fall it must, sparks and searing words fly. By the end, those shattered fantasies have gone, and it's clear that their remnants will remain to wreak havoc for a long time to come. But Milwe and her actors leave us knowing that that's okay. So what if manipulated paper doesn't return to its original self? There are endless, gorgeous wonders that can only result from making that first, dangerous fold.

Animals Out of Paper
Through March 28
McAlpin Hall at the West Park Church, 165 West 86th Street at Amsterdam Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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