Hype can be a dangerous thing, especially for emerging playwrights. Take Rajiv Joseph, whose Pulitzer finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is currently in previews on Broadway (starring Robin Williams). Joseph also has a world premiere happening now at California's TheatreWorks (The North Pool) and another (The Monster at the Door) coming up at Houston's Alley Theatre, where his recent off-Broadway hit Gruesome Playground Injuries debuted in 2009.
Important theaters are commissioning work from him, so he must be something special, huh?
Well, the verdict is still out, if only judging by North Texas' first taste of his work. It's the area premiere of his 2008 play Animals Out of Paper, courtesy of Amphibian Stage Productions.
It's definitely a crowd-pleaser. And although there is some clever symbolism involved, the play oddly enough feels like something we've seen before, but with different occupations, situations and character quirks plugged in. Then again, you could say that about a number of worthwhile plays. If the trick is to give hackneyed storylines a fresh spin, then Joseph is indeed something special.
Ilana (Laurel Whitsett) is a brilliant origami artist who has written a book about it, but is currently suffering from the equivalent of writer's block (folder's block?), thanks to the funk caused by a recent divorce and escaped three-legged dog. She's living in a cramped and cluttered apartment and staying in her bathrobe
Andy (Marshall York), a high school calculus teacher and amateur origamist, tracks her down. He has his own quirks, and has been a fan of her book and work for so long that he's infatuated with her before he has really gotten to know her. One of his students, Suresh (Andrés Ortiz), has an amazing mind for folding, and so Andy works out an introduction between Ilana and Suresh.
Familiar themes quickly emerge. Will Ilana fall for this man who seems to be as messed up as she is? Will she be jealous of the brilliant mind that origami prodigy Suresh possesses? Will Suresh squander his talent?
Good questions, all. And they're not all neatly answered. While Joseph's play feels at once familiar and fresh, it's clear that he's a writer with ideas. The symbolism of folding paper as it relates to memory, emotional scarring and a clean slate is a good noggin-jogger, and the correlations between origami, mathematics, biology and rap lyrics is, as Suresh would say, dope.
Amphibian's production looks fantastic. The scenic design (Sean Urbantke), costumes (Susan Austin), lighting (Aaron Lentz) and properties design (Karen Matheny) are as good-looking and appropriate to the script as Amphibian has ever managed. And that's saying something; the 'Phibs have always made design a priority.
Directed by Evan Mueller, the ensemble is off-kilter, though. The best performance comes from Ortiz, who is outlandish but real as a teen of South Asian descent who desperately wants to assimilate into American youth and hip-hop culture, but still knows where his priorities lie. Whitsett has the difficult task of grounding the character who could easily be eccentric, and for the most part handles that admirably. Her reactions to the first encounter with Andy are priceless. In the second act twist she doesn't quite connect in the situation that ultimately gives the play an optimistic ending.
And then there's York, who is funny but takes the quirkiness too far. Anyone who saw him do the same Jim Carey-esque, rubber-faced portrayal in Amphibian's Mueller-directed Last Day of School in 2010 is now left to wonder if that's his shtick and whether another director could rein him in.
Where Animals Out of Paper is a work of bold but precise origami-like folding patterns, the Amphibian production is more like a crumpled ball of paper. Might not be perfect, but it's still fun to play with.