Rajiv Joseph's drama about a trio of people who create origami often feels as if something is missing. That's appropriate, because loss is a recurring theme in Animals Out of Paper. Ilana, an origami artist, has recently been divorced and, worse, has lost her dog. Andy is a calculus teacher and origami hobbyist who's documented his lifetime total of blessings in a notebook, only to lose it. Suresh, Andy's calculus student, is an origami prodigy who has lost his mother in the past year. Origami may link them, but their losses separate them. Whether their connection can overpower the distance between them is the tension that powers this engaging, frustrating play.
Wallowing in her misery, Ilana (Teresa Doggett) hasn't left her studio in two months when Andy (Andrew Kuhlman) pops by on official business for the arts organization Origami America. Her studio (suitably lived-in, courtesy of designer Keller Ryan) has drifts of Chinese take-out cartons and sheaves of paper covering the floor. He's chipper and loud; she's disconnected and increasingly frustrated by his presence. Doggett has an open-eyed stare that conveys perfect befuddlement, while Kuhlman keeps a steady grin as he barks out Andy's excitement at standing in the studio of the Ilana Andrews, the artist who wrote his favorite book, Folding the Things I Lost.
After Andy whips her into a rage with his ebullient presence, he drops his bomb: A brilliant student of his has withdrawn after the death of his mother, and Andy would very much like Ilana to mentor him. Once she sees Suresh's complex and innovative work, she eventually agrees, and Andy leaves, happier than when he arrived. But his book of blessings, which he has meticulously tallied since boyhood, is inadvertently left behind. It includes more than 9,000 wonders — his health; a really great rake he bought; a class he took, taught by Ilana. Ilana reads it all.
Suresh (Ethan Isaac) also antagonizes Ilana, but in his case because of his laid-back style. Isaac is a charismatic actor, commanding attention with a slouch or a sudden outburst of anger. By fits and starts he and Ilana connect, primarily because she's fascinated by his ability to improvise elaborate paper structures — but when he applies himself, he can work miracles such as making an anatomically correct human heart.
Of course, you don't see any member of the trio actually make anything. Origami is difficult, and requires practice and skill to pull off, so that's an understandable choice. (The members of Origami STL provide the show's sculptures.) Still, it is strange to hear so much talk about the art form without seeing anyone at work on it.
In time, Andy and Ilana become romantically entwined, and Suresh continues to nettle Ilana even as he charms her. There's a seemingly steady progression toward resolution on all fronts, but of course it all comes undone.
Without giving away the ending, there is a never-seen project involving the human heart that Ilana has been commissioned to solve. Can she devise a series of folds that will allow medical mesh to pass through an artery and then unfold and surround a human heart in order to heal a weakened or — dare I say it? — broken heart. Rajiv Joseph hammers on this theme with decreasing subtlety throughout the play, stopping just short of dropping a neon heart from the sky to shatter between the trio.
At its most restrained, Animals Out of Paper is enchanting, and the actors all do very good work under director Todd Schaefer. Doggett and Kuhlman share a first kiss that is chaste and tender, while Isaac has several phone calls with his father that reveal the older man is in dire straits without his wife, information conveyed solely through the actor's expression. The playwright may be heavy-handed, but the three performances successfully make Animals Out of Paper.