A woman who has become a virtual recluse in the months since the breakup of her marriage and the disappearance of a cherished pet. A high school calculus teacher who’s been keeping a written record of his life’s every blessing since the age of twelve. The teacher’s star student, an Indian-American math nerd who fancies himself a black rapper.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph weaves these three ordinary lives into something quite extraordinary in his 2008 dramedy Animals Out Of Paper, now being given a pitch-perfect Los Angeles Premiere as the opening salvo in East West Players’ two-year-long celebration of its 50th season of offering Angelinos of every ethnicity the finest in Asian-American theater.
The arrival of a rain-drenched Andy Froling (C.S. Lee) at the studio of origami artist Ilana Andrews (Tess Lina) is absolutely the last thing Ilana wants to interrupt her day, not that she’s got anything better lined up this morning as her disheveled state, cluttered studio, and firm resolve not to get up from the couch she’s been hibernating on make abundantly clear.
American Origami treasurer Andy has shown up ostensibly to deliver an envelope of fliers sent back to the AO office—and to collect Ilana’s yearly dues, though as we will soon learn, an ulterior motive lurks not so deep beneath the surface.
What has in fact motivated Andy’s unexpected, unwanted visit is a request he hopes Ilana will honor, that of tutoring Suresh (Kapil Talwalker), his brightest student, in the ancient Japanese art of paper-folding.
Given the surly, pitiful excuse for a welcome that Ilana has given Andy so far, it should hardly come as a surprise that she turns him down in no uncertain terms, though as we are about to discover, Andy is not one to take no for an answer.
Relentlessly upbeat, Andy has already reached Blessing Number 7,904 in his handwritten Book Of Blessings. (“Folding Ilana’s models which are things she has lost in her life and reading her little essays about them” is number 5,962.) As for Blessing Number 7,905, all Ilana has to do is say “Yes” to Andy’s proposal and that one will be jotted down forthwith.
After all, who could possibly deny a request to come to the aid of a teen whose mother’s recent death in a hit-and-run has left him “just the shell of the kid we knew,” a boy who can fold “like Jimi Hendrix if Jimi Hendrix folded polyhedral origami,” and once Ilana has seen examples of the extremely complex geometric shapes Suresh has created out of what were once just flat pieces of paper, her eventual response is a no-brainer.
Still, it doesn’t take long before Ilana begins to regret the rashness of her decision. The straight-A high school senior may have been accepted into Yale and MIT (before opting to Andy’s horror for Brown!), but the mouthy, skater-garbed, headphone-sporting wannabe rapper who shows up on her doorstep for his first tutoring session is just about the last person Ilana would ever want to mentor.
Or at least he is until Suresh catches sight of the human heart diagrams tacked up on Ilana’s wall, and hearing of her latest project (to create a mesh netting which, when inserted though a small tube in a person’s chest, can surround and provide pressure to a weakened heart, thereby avoiding open heart surgery), shows an interest which leads Ilana to believe this might possibly be someone worth tutoring—that and a phone call from Suresh’s father that gives her a glimpse of the thoughtful, caring boy this exasperating teenager might really be.
What follows are a series of scenes detailing Ilana’s deepening relationships with both Suresh and Andy, none of whose details will be revealed here other than to say that once playwright Joseph has hooked you, Animals Out Of Paper will hold you mesmerized by its trio of messy lives every bit as much in need of straightening up as Ilana’s studio.
Though it was playwright Joseph’s Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo that took him to Broadway in 2010 and scored him his Pulitzer Prize nomination, it was Animals Out Of Paper that two years earlier revealed his gifts as a writer, albeit on a far more intimate scale.
Unlike novelists with unlimited words with which to delve inside their characters’ souls, playwrights have only dialog to accomplish the same task, a talent Joseph has in spades, and with actors as fabulous as the ones bringing those words to life on the David Henry Hwang stage, Andy, Ilana, and Suresh become as three-dimensional as Characters (Originally) Written On Paper can be.
Jennifer Chang directs masterfully, seamlessly interweaving the play’s seven scenes without a single black-out save intermission, Suresh’s between-scene “clean-up” sequence proving particularly inspired. So are the arpeggios Chang has sound designer Melanie Chen insert at various key moments, musical accents that add just the right bit of magic to Joseph’s otherwise entirely realistic tale.
Though Suresh’s ethnicity is but the tiniest part of his character, by writing him as specifically Indian-American, playwright Joseph has insured that the role go to an actor of South-Asian origin, and more power to him for that.
Where East West Players takes this a step further, and excitingly so, is by casting Ilana and Andy as Asian-American as well, roles previously played by Caucasian actors because … well because that’s how directors and casting directors still think despite Shonda Rhimes’ and Mindy Kaling’s best efforts.
Regardless of ethnicity, it’s hard to imagine a finer cast than the one assembled for Animals Out Of Paper’s Los Angeles Premiere.
Without trying to sugar-coat Ilana’s very rough edges, the marvelous Lina ever so subtly lets you see the wounded soul beneath the surface, and has deliciously prickly chemistry with both her scene partners. A superb Lee, Michael C. Hall’s costar on TV’s Dexter, aces Andy’s every quirk while revealing the heart of gold beating inside the origami fanatic’s nerdy chest.
As for Talwalker, the gifted USC senior walks tall indeed in his professional debut, giving a richly-layered performance as a confused, well-meaning, screwed-up, but entirely decent teen who will both win and break your heart.
Scenic designer Naomi Kasahara has created a Technicolor wonder of a set, from Act One’s origami-cluttered mess of a studio to the romantic restaurant that opens Act Two to the Nagasaki hotel room into which it morphs. Most thrilling of all is the way Kasahara’s set unfolds back into Ilana’s studio, the arches of Nagasaki’s atom bomb-surviving 17th-century Meganebashi Bridge that back all this up making for another inspired design choice.
Property master Ayako Inoue merits major props for the abovementioned mess, and for the origami that extends out into the theater itself. Halei Parker’s terrific costumes reveal both who Joseph’s characters are when we meet them and who they develop into over the course of their story. Lighting designer Tom Ontiveros lights both set and costumes to perfection.
Michelle Gutierrez Martina is stage manager.
A long-awaited Los Angeles Premiere following previous, much-lauded runs in New York, San Francisco, and Sydney; a play that specifically addresses the Asian-American experience through the eyes of an otherwise All-American teenager; and a cast featuring three of L.A.’s finest Asian-American talents …
It’s hard to imagine a better season opener for East West Players’ 50th than Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out Of Paper.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
September 10, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont