The Pain of a Folded Life

Rajiv Joseph is perhaps best-known as the author of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which gave the late Robin Williams his only Broadway role. Now an enterprising troupe is staging another Joseph play, Animals Out of Paper, with resources that make the description “shoestring” seem lavish. But the actors, under Merri Milwe’s precise and lovely direction, do justice to a fascinating script. 

The three characters in Joseph’s 2008 drama are all practitioners of origami, the ancient Japanese art of folding paper into objects, mostly animals. The play opens on a reclusive young woman, Ilana (Nairoby Otero), who is an acknowledged American master of the art. As her sudden visitor, Andy (David Beck), reminds her, she has written “the number 2 best-selling origami book in the country,” a collection of essays about folding.

Andy is treasurer of American Origami, a professional society, and his impromptu drop-in is ostensibly to collect dues. Ilana admits him reluctantly, and in spite of her irritation and rudeness, Andy clearly has a liking for Ilana. In fact, he has admired her at a distance at A.O. gatherings, and has even spoken to her, although she doesn’t remember. Andy is also president of a school calculus club where he teaches, and he keeps a list of things to be thankful for in a worn diary. If all that spells “nerd,” it’s true, but Beck manages to combine bashful gaucherie and yearning and self-knowledge without ever seeming weak, effeminate, or just foolish. It’s a beautifully modulated performance.

Beyond his desire to see Ilana, Andy has another motive for his personal call. One of his students, Suresh (Maneesh Sasikumar), is ultra-talented at origami, and Andy wants Ilana to tutor him. She declines because she never teaches. Then he shows her samples of Suresh’s work, and she decides to step outside her comfort zone. Almost immediately she has reason to regret it, because Suresh, who has just turned 18, is arrogant and oblivious to considerate behavior. (If there’s a weakness in the script, it’s that Ilana’s patience in the face of his rudeness strains credibility, and, equally, that Suresh, who carries the weight of adult responsibility in his personal life, is so deliberately offensive to her.) Suresh gets under Ilana’s skin when he cleans up her apartment—she typically has sheets and balls of paper strewn around the floor. It is, however, her typical working atmosphere. Sasikumar, by the way, dances to rap as he cleans up the space, and his movement is one of the offbeat joys of the play.

Joseph is writing about the dangers of being stamped too strongly by one’s past, and the need to welcome new experiences. His view is given eloquent voice by Ilana in a speech in Act II that connects origami to his theme: “Look at this paper. It has no memory, it’s just flat. But fold it, even once, and suddenly it remembers something. And then with each fold, another memory, another experience and they build up to make something complicated. The paper must forget that it was ever flat, ever a simple square. It probably can’t remember it’s still in one piece. … It’s all twisted into something so far from what it used to be.”

The characters in Animals Out of Paper are all marked by their history. Suresh’s mother has recently been killed in a car accident, and he’s trying to be parent to his family, including his father. When Andy takes Ilana out on a date (a scene that’s delicately staged and played), he becomes embarrassed that she knows everything about him—all his secrets were in his diary, including the women who broke his heart. He must woo her without the privacy that anyone else might have. He’s breaking ground where few have had to go before.

It’s at the dinner that Ilana reveals she has an invitation to an origami conference in Nagasaki, and that she intends to take Suresh, her student, rather than Andy. Beck shows Andy’s hurt and manfulness as he tries to recover from his disappointment, but the quiet tragedy of Animals Out of Paper is that, like the folds that cannot be erased in origami, the creases in one’s past prove just as complicated and indelible on the human soul.

Rajiv Joseph's Animals Out of Paper is performed at the McAlpin Hall at the West Park Church (165 W. 86th St.at Amsterdam Avenue). Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m, and Sundays at 5 p.m. Tickets are $18 for all performances and may be purchased online at SmarTix.com or by calling (212) 868-4444.

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