The idea of relating the ancient art of origami, or paper folding, to human experiences and relationships is an intriguing one. But it’s one that doesn’t quite seem to take shape in the Banyan Theater Company’s production of Rajiv Joseph’s Animals Out of Paper.
You may recognize the playwright’s name from Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which recently starred Robin Williams on Broadway. That show got a lot of buzz; this one, a slightly earlier effort, has had several productions elsewhere before coming to Sarasota.
I haven’t seen the play before, and it’s always a little difficult to determine with a first-time experience how much of its success or failure depends on the piece itself and how much on the production. Certainly the setup has potential: We first meet Ilana (Barbara Sloan), a well-known origamist, as she receives a visit from Andy (Christopher Swan), who met her at an origami conference and has wanted to expand on the acquaintance ever since. Ilana’s going through a bad patch; her apartment is buried under unfolded paper and Chinese takeout boxes and she herself is buried in grief and anger over a recent separation from her husband and the loss of her dog.
Christopher Swan and Barbara Sloan in Animals Out of Paper.
So she’s not exactly receptive to Andy, who’s a big overgrown puppy himself, full of so much cheer and enthusiasm that he would seem to be he direct antidote to her own depression. Andy’s the sort of guy who actually counts his blessings (he writes them all down in a book he carries with him), and he’s not easily deterred from trying to bring Ilana out of her funk.
The third character in the show’s triangle is the young Suresh (Luke Bartholomew), a student of Andy’s who has an uncanny gift for making animals (and other shapes) out of paper. Suresh has issues of his own; his mother has died and his family isn’t coping well. It’s Andy’s hope that bringing Suresh and Ilana together will make them both happier—while he’s also hoping that Ilana will gradually see him as a viable candidate for her love.
Swan delivers an entertaining performance as the vulnerable if sometimes dense Andy; it’s fun to watch his facial expressions as he reacts to Ilana, whether they contain disappointment or embarrassment or attempts at nonchalance. Perhaps because his character seems the least complex of the three, he also feels the most developed—the easiest to believe as a real person.
By contrast, Sloan never really catches fire, not convincing us either as a woman with a passion for origami or as one deep in the slough of despair. Her performance feels just that—a performance. And although Bartholomew as Suresh does an impressive job of delivering some rap lyrics, his growing relationship with Ilana doesn’t really convince, either.
There are certainly a few laughs in the more awkward moments of Animals Out of Paper, but the heart isn’t engaged as one wants it to be. To steal a metaphor of sorts, the folds just don’t align to make a perfect piece.
Animals Out of Paper continues through Aug. 7 at the Cook Theatre; call 351-2808 or go to banyantheatercompany.com.