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Animals Out of Paper

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Utkarsh Ambudkar, Kellie Overbey, and Jeremy Shamos.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

What, you've never heard of instinctive origami? No matter. Even if you were under the impression that the art of Japanese paper folding is a learned skill rather than a natural gift, you'll find plenty to educate and charm you in Rajiv Joseph's delicately explosive new play Animals Out of Paper, playing at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series.

As the title suggests, origami factors prominently in this sharp-edged exploration of the interlocking lives of three very different New Yorkers. But though they're all obsessed with the activity, and the resulting birds, polyhedra, and even dinosaurs that can be created from it, Joseph and director Giovanna Sardelli couldn't care less about such specifics. They're far more interested in the origins of the human artistic impulse, and what they mean for those enslaved to it.

Ilana (Kellie Overbey) is a nationally renowned origamist, who has built her career on the technical perfection of precisely planned folding. Her personal life, however, is more akin to a crumpled clump on the floor: She's separated from her husband, lost her dog, and moved into her studio, but only drifted farther away from what once energized her. Her new apprentice Suresh (Utkarsh Ambudkar) fashions his own enchanting objects by eye and by feeling, and rejects Ilana's rigid structural approach - even as he demands it in his private life, which thanks to his recently deceased mother and his withering father is falling apart.

Bridging the gulf between them is Andy (Jeremy Shamos), Suresh's teacher and Ilana's biggest fan. Though nearly as enraptured of origami as he is of her, he has little talent of his own. Instead, he expresses himself in a tiny book in which he literally counts his blessings, and has become a poetic treatise on all that's right and, by extension, all that's wrong with his life. His soul is every bit as vivid as Ilana's and Suresh's, merely buried deeper.

Early in the trio's interactions, they threaten to scour you with skin-crawling cutesiness. In successive scenes, a starstruck Andy meets Ilana and walks away with a mammoth model hawk and a passive-aggressive Suresh insults her with teenage epithets hardly befitting a mentor-mentee relationship. These prevent the play from beginning decisively, and suggest too strongly that Joseph is going to waste time mired in the adolescent.

But as Joseph delves deeper into his characters' colliding quests for truth - personal, professional, and romantic - the three mature into complex individuals as fragile as the paper they manipulate. Each has experienced loss and dealt with it differently (and poorly), but emerged stronger if more flammable, so scenes in which the burgeoning relationships threaten to combust outright - an awkward Valentine's Day dinner between Andy and Ilana, a night in a Nagasaki hotel between Ilana and Suresh at an origami conference, and a confrontation between Suresh and Andy in that trip's aftermath - outline a searingly simple, but richly satisfying, drama.

The actors all adroitly tap into their characters' lingering pain, though Ambudkar usually lays on his lackadaisical tragic side with an unconvincing thickness; he's better as the emotionally burdened but unadorned young man who doesn't understand the powers he possesses. Ilana's frustration collects behind Overbey's eyes, and manifests itself as alternately methodical, mad, and maddening, in a carefully measured performance that succinctly highlights Ilana's unrealized potential. Shamos is better still, portraying Andy as an impossibly ingratiating walking skeleton on the verge of disintegration; his deft handling of the betrayal he must face on two fronts again identifies him as one of our best (if most unappreciated) actors.

Sardelli has directed them all with great sensitivity, never trivializing what might seem like throwaway concerns in the early scenes but become crucial later on. She's also conceived an oddly endearing method of scene changing that involves no stagehands, but the actors - in character - making tiny adjustments and full-scale moves of Beowulf Boritt's barely ordered chaos-studio set (accessorized with giant sheets of creased paper), while revealing as much of themselves as they do in the dialogue.

This potential gimmick is entertaining, true. But it also adds another layer to an already heaping play, showing how Ilana, Andy, and Suresh been looking for themselves for too long to give up even in the false hope of a blackout. Animals Out of Paper is always sobering, but never moreso than when reminding you that until they know who they are on the outside, these people will never be truly in touch with the artists within.

Animals Out of Paper
Through August 24
Running time: 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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