Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Animals Out of Paper
Also see Richard's review of Dracula
Whether it was the acting, the writing, or the directing, I can't really say. There is always a certain amount of forensics in being a critic, but this one's still a mystery to me: the actors do all the work in front of us, the writer does all the construction, and the director knows precisely how to minimize or maximize a thousand little things all along the way. But somehow (and I may never know how), well into a restaurant scene after intermission, I had to shake myself and remember "it's only a play."
That moment of resurfacing came during a scene between the Welsh-born actress Teresa Doggett as Ilana and the surprising young actor Andrew Kuhlman as Andy: she knows everything about hieverythingand he knows almost nothing about her. And she doesn't like it a bit. It's all so funny and tense and heartbreaking, over a Valentine's Day dinner, you lose sight of the barrier between fiction and reality.
But he's giggling and in love, and so everything he does is wonderful and delightful, while she sits on a psychological fault-line, waiting for disaster. If a busboy had come along to refill my water glass as I sat eavesdropping in this imaginary restaurant, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised.
The rest of the play is pretty great too, and without it we would never be so utterly engrossed by the tension of impending heartbreak, in Rajiv Joseph's 2008 dramatic comedy. Ilana has watched her life collapse around her, and become a shut-in over the preceding two months. Until Andy (Mr. Kuhlman) barges in. The thing that gradually unites them is origami.
But Andy is a calculus teacher with a troubled student named Suresh (played by handsome Ethan Isaac) who needs something to occupy his brilliant mind during a difficult period in his life. So the teacher brings Ilana and Suresh together, for their mutual benefit (so Suresh can learn the ancient art of paper folding). Being a dramatic comedy, of course, the results are funny and explosive and rarely beneficial to any of the three.
But it's one of those excellent stories, which always seem to be about bleak and yet comical student-teacher relationships, where everyone gets stripped bare (psychologically)not just for our "entertainment" exactly, but "astonishment" may be a better word. Animals Out of Paper hits a lot of the same chords as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but in different order and different guises, and then only if you reduce everything down to the most elemental level. There are personal illusions to be shattered, a bit of forbidden love, and great hopes twisted into something beyond recognition. But it's got a much sharper set of peaks and valleys than Jean Brodie in its two-hour and ten minute run-time.
Todd Schaefer directs, and all the meanings emerge quietly and thoughtfully, even when everyone's shouting at one another (which doesn't happen all that often). He should get the credit for the stunning verisimilitude of that restaurant scene, though he was also lucky to cast those actors in those roles. Ms. Doggett's Ilana is subtly, unbearably uncomfortable; and Mr. Kuhlman's Andy, perfectly delightful and unaware in the face of disaster.
As the brilliant student Suresh, Mr. Isaac is the master of weary adolescent muttering. All his laugh-lines seem to pop up at the twisted, withering end of each sentence, as he trails off. His character is fully committed to the hip-hop esthetic, but the actor is able to spin it into instant humiliation when Suresh's newly widowed father telephones, full of annoying questions and demands. And you get the best of both worlds: Suresh looks great in ridiculously saggy pants; and he's very funny and charming too.
R-S Theatrics specializes in local premieres, and this very worthwhile St. Louis debut continues through December 6, 2015, at the Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr. (just south of Wydown and Skinker Blvds.). For more information visit www.r-stheatrics.com.