Rajiv Joseph's Animals Out of Paper Shows Insight Into Loneliness

Tess Lina as Ilana and Kapil Talwalkar as SureshEXPAND
Tess Lina as Ilana and Kapil Talwalkar as Suresh
Photo by Michael Lamont

Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s play about three sensitive, lonely people and their anxious efforts to relate to each other is a discerning, fine-spun drama. This East West Players production directed by Jennifer Chang takes a while to get off the ground, but ultimately evolves into a moving piece of theater.

Ilana (Tess Lina), the pivotal character, is a master origamist with an international reputation. When we meet her, she’s living a semi-agoraphobic existence in an cluttered studio strewn with take-away cartons, piles of paper and dirty laundry.

Ilana is miserably unhappy. Not only has she recently suffered a painful divorce, but her much loved old dog — whom we later learn once saved her life and that of her ex-husband — has run off.

Tess Lina as Ilana and C.S. Lee as AndyEXPAND
Tess Lina as Ilana and C.S. Lee as Andy
Photo by Michael Lamont

Enter Andy (C.S. Lee), the treasurer of the local origami association, as bright and chirpy as Ilana is cold and curt. Right off it’s evident that he's smitten with Ilana and will do most anything to please her. But Andy, a shy high school math teacher, hasn’t come to woo. He’s come to ask Ilana to tutor a student of his, Suresh (Kapil Talwalkar), who’s shown promise in her field, and who just now needs adult support and diversion in the wake of his mother’s sudden accidental death.

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When Andy exits, he leaves behind his notebook: an ongoing compilation of personal observations that lists all the reasons (thousands of them) why he feels blessed. It’s a remarkable pastime for a funny, self-deprecating man who wears pain on his sleeve. After reading his book — she knows she shouldn’t but she does — Ilana is moved enough to emerge from her shell, and the two begin to date. Meanwhile, she starts working with Suresh, whose teenage insouciance commingles with a caring nature and unexpected insight.

Soon a triangle develops among these three injured people, with all the attendant torments that such an arrangement brings. By that time we’ve gotten to know these characters well, and hope for the best for them all. That doesn’t happen immediately, however, mainly because for nearly half the play Lina's Ilana comes across as a tediously one-dimensional depressive. It’s only after her character becomes involved with Andy and Suresh that the performance acquires color and authenticity.

Lee, on the other hand, is spot-on from first to last as a gentle nerd envisioning happiness for the very first time. It’s a touching performance. And Talwalkar, despite a couple of awkward moments, brings a rough raw intelligence to the budding prodigy he portrays.

East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Little Tokyo.; through Oct. 5. (213) 625-7000, eastwestplayers.org.

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