Review: “Animals Out of Paper” at Hudson Stage Company

John P. McCarthy

  • OnStage Tri-State Critic

ARMONK NY - As subject matter for a play, origami is almost too rich in that it offers a trove of metaphorical patterns and interpretive juxtapositions that, if not predictable, are fairly easy to identify. The moderator of a writing workshop might commend a budding dramatist’s choice of origami (the art of paper folding) as “a motif ripe for commentary on the human condition.” Yet this imagined instructor ought to also warn how difficult it is to avoid clichés and tidy insights when handling such low-hanging thematic fruit. 

In his 2008 play “Animals Out of Paper,” now being revived by the Hudson Stage Company in Armonk, Rajiv Joseph uses origami to examine the emotional lives of three nerds—highly intelligent, socially awkward individuals whose abilities and avocations set them apart. Joseph is skilled enough to configure this geeks’ ménage a trois in a way that isn’t too pat or grossly obvious. 

This doesn’t mean “Animals Out of Paper” is entirely successful or a great play. It’s a good play; and, as usual, HSC does the piece justice by presenting a polished, forthright production with strong contributions from every department. There’s something too schematic and artificial about it however. I came away thinking Joseph, whose subsequent play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, was mainly interested in tinkering with an idea and working on his craft. While far from hollow, the play is short on viscera. It needs more emotional innards. 

The central character Ilana (Jenny Sheffer Stevens) is an acclaimed practitioner of origami who’s in a deep funk because both her husband and her three-legged, earless dog have left her.  Depressed and reclusive, she’s living in her unkempt work studio (strewn with Chinese takeout boxes and various professional and personal effects) and doesn’t take kindly to the unannounced visit of Andy (Michael Guagno), a high school calculus teacher and origami enthusiast. 

Andy is a huge fan of Ilana’s work and greatly admires the memoir she’s written about her need to make things out of folded paper. Perpetually upbeat and cheery, he carries around his own (unpublished) volume titled “Book of Blessings” in which he jots down everything in his life he’s grateful for.  Andy is genuinely, and somewhat creepily, concerned about Ilana’s well being and it doesn’t take long for him to admit he has a crush on her.  

The third point in the triangle is Suresh (Adit Dileep), one of Andy’s students and an origami prodigy. The son of Indian immigrants, Suresh is despondent over his mother’s recent death and Andy wants Ilana to supervise his senior project. To mask his particular sorrow and generalized adolescent angst, Suresh has adopted a hip-hop, gangsta persona. Although this pose is pretty ridiculous, he does find profundity in the improvisational structure and spontaneity of rap music. 

 Credit Rana Faure

Credit Rana Faure

As the action proceeds—with a Valentine’s Day dinner, Ilana’s efforts to design a mesh heart insert for a medical device company, and a trip to an origami conference in Nagasaki, Japan—Joseph analyzes his characters’ reactions to pain, adversity and a sense of isolation. These might be considered the sources of all human conflict, yet he poses a somewhat narrower question as well: How do they overcome creative blocks—obstacles that prevent them from doing their work, solving problems and feeling productive? In her case, Ilana must impose order on chaos, to discern a structure where there only appears to be clutter and confusion. Often this entails creating the mess or fostering the chaos that she then tames, so it’s no wonder her personal life is in disarray and that she can’t bring herself to practice origami. Callous and quite destructive, she’s not very admirable. 

Suresh takes a more freewheeling, intuitive approach. His outlook and default mode can be described as artistic and idealistic, in part because he’s still so young. He’s preternaturally attuned to truth and beauty and yet his faith in his ability is under siege. Andy, the least intellectually gifted of the three, focuses on keeping his head above water psychologically. His “Book of Blessings” is a ritual means of convincing himself things aren’t as bleak as they seem, that his glass is half full and that he’s not alone. He’s an extremely nice guy (read milquetoast or doormat) and when at his lowest ebb reveals how much effort it takes to appear so optimistic and tolerant. 

All three roles are substantive, but since Ilana is in every scene and isn’t very sympathetic, Ms. Stevens has the toughest assignment. No significant stumbles were detectable in the performances, although the timing seemed a little off in scene one between Ilana and Andy. By his willingness to keep the audience on his toes and not over-explain, director Stephen Nachamie demonstrates his fealty to the text and to the idea that surface miscommunications aren’t damning and yet connections on a deeper, non-verbal level are no guarantee of happiness. 

When casting Suresh, it’s too bad they couldn’t find an actor who looks more like he’s 17 or 18. Mr. Dileep gives a fine performance despite seeming too old for the part. It doesn’t help that, even allowing for what it says about Suresh’s maturity and its instructive parallels with origami, his fixation on hip hop and insistence on mimicking African-American speech feels passé. To counteract this impression, the time period in which the play is set should be around 2006 or 2007, not the “Present” as the program reads.

“Animals Out of Paper” concerns the clumsy stabs at intimacy and fellowship three hurting people make. It might benefit from sharper edges as well as softer moments of connectivity. In other words, more ferocity and more tenderness. And yet this desire to see more guts, metaphorically speaking, and less intellectual and emotional maneuvering, illustrates Joseph’s overarching point about how passive-aggressive and indirect people usually are. It’s tempting to think life would be easier and less frustrating if bad behavior was more overt—if we were more animalistic and less cerebral. That’s just another illusion however. Pain is pain, no matter how we try to disguise or deflect it. 

“Animals Out of Paper” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through May 14, 2016.