The delicate art of origami provides both metaphor and motor for “Animals Out of Paper” at the David Henry Hwang Theater, and it enfolds the viewer with deceptive simplicity and considerable craft.
Rajiv Joseph’s engrossing 2008 dramedy receives an elegant production as the opening show of East West Players’ 50th anniversary season. Although not without quirks, this funny, touching three-hander about a blocked artist and the two men who enter her downtrodden milieu reminds us anew that the author of “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” has a truly original playwriting voice.
Meet Ilana (the capable Tess Lina), an origami artist whose attitude is baleful, to put it mildly. In the middle of a divorce, mourning her missing dog, living in her Boston studio amid crumpled paper and Chinese takeout cartons, Ilana contains more crease patterns than a paper hawk the size of a pterodactyl.
Until one rainy night, calculus teacher Andy (C.S. Lee, charming as ever) arrives with a barely concealed crush and a tentative proposition regarding a student who is an untrained origami prodigy that he hopes Ilana will mentor.
Between the examples of the kid’s art and the blessings journal Andy accidentally leaves behind, Ilana is reluctantly intrigued by the request and its messenger.
Enter hip-hop-spouting Saresh (Kapil Talkwalkar, an absolute find), a high school senior with his own set of demons. His first encounter with Ilana is a combustible nonstarter, until Saresh’s cellphone rings and snark shifts to sensitivity while talking his widowed father through defrosting a chicken.
The unpredictable quasi-triangle that emerges has some elements of sitcom and soap, but just around the edges. By layers and degrees, author Joseph envelops these three wounded souls in a blessedly unsentimental parable about the force of art and the vagaries of the human heart.
Director Jennifer Chang could mine more nuance at points, but she delivers a sharp staging. Designer Naomi Kasahara’s inventive set, with titular examples strewn around the venue’s walls, dovetails with the fine contributions of Tom Ontiveros (lighting), Melanie Chen (sound and compositions), Halei Parker (costumes) and Ayako Inoue (property master).
At the reviewed performance, Lina spent Act 1 painstakingly tracing her beats, technically proficient without fully locating the sum of Ilana’s pain. Yet by the pivotal Act 2 trip to Nagasaki, this accomplished actress had relaxed into the role’s contradictions, and she will surely only deepen as the run progresses.
Lee’s crack timing and multi-tiered attack works wonderfully as dweebish Andy, and Talkwalkar is a revelation as Saresh, with an energy and spontaneity that recalls the emerging Bobby Cannavale.
It’s a play full of symbolism, but not dauntingly so, and its accessibility is universal. As Ilana tells Saresh, a piece of paper is never the same again after it has been folded, that it has memory. “It’s all twisted into something so far from what it used to be.” The same cannot be said for this beautifully judged L.A. premiere.
“Animals Out of Paper,” David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends October 5. $28-$38. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.