It's true in love as it is in theater: opposites attract. But when you pile up a few too many opposites in one play, the initially interesting friction can lead to some problems.
Such is the case with Animals Out of Paper by Clevelander Rajiv Joseph, now at Ensemble Theatre. Joseph is a particularly adept craftsman of dialogue, and his early scenes are genuinely amusing and at times revealing.
But by featuring three characters who are each a bundle of opposites and then extruding them through a script that has its own bipolar aspects, the finished result is less than a sum of its parts.
As the title indicates (no, it doesn't refer to zoo denizens running short on 50-lb. cover stock), origami is at the center of this tale. It features three paper-folding practitioners of varied abilities.
Ilana is a pro, a middle-aged woman who teaches origami, has written a book on the subject and is currently involved in a medical project to wrap sick hearts with some sort of folded synthetic material.
She's dedicated to the exquisitely exacting art of origami, but she herself is a hot mess, living on take-out Chinese food and surrounded by lots of paper—folded and otherwise. You see, she has recently been devastated due to a divorce and the disappearance of her beloved three-legged dog.
While mired in her misery, she is visited by Andy asking for her dues to the American Origami organization, of which he is the treasurer. But the relentlessly upbeat Andy, an origami wannabe himself, has another mission. He teaches high school and has a student, Suresh, who is apparently a budding origami genius. And Andy wants to know if Ilana will be Suresh's mentor.
To this point, Joseph's play works splendidly well, as the halting dialogue between these two strangers evolves naturally and comically. Andy is played with a goofy, awkward cheerfulness by Geoff Knox that almost always works.
And when Knox reveals his character's penchant for writing down all his blessings from the ridiculous ("I bought a really good rake today") to the sublime, his sunny approach starts cracking Ilana's dark mood. And optimistic Andy starts falling for the surly origami queen.
But by the time Suresh enters to begin his mentoring experience with Ilana, playwright Joseph's game of opposites starts to turn on itself. Suresh is a slouching, rude teen with a short fuse (he angrily tells Ilana to suck his dick a few minutes after meeting her). But then again, he detests household disarray and even reorganizes Ilana's possessions, much to her distress.
Then the neat-freak Suresh tells sloppy Ilana that she's too regimented and needs to "freestyle" her origami creations, giving her an example by improvising rap lyrics on the spot. Okay, he's an origami prodigy and a rap prodigy? Try wrapping your brain around that.
In the second act, the relationships converge when Ilana takes Suresh to an origami conference in Japan, touching and smooching ensues and it all, you know, unfolds. This is when Joseph's play opposes itself, whiplashing from quirky comedy to serious "message" play. And these opposites fail to attract.
As Ilana, Katherine DeBoer has moments of believable angst. But neither she nor her remarkably uncluttered "mess" of an apartment fully express the depths to which Ilana has sunk. This makes her eventual emergence, thanks to both Andy and Suresh, less moving.
Andrew Samtoy is fine when portraying Suresh as an affectless kid. But when the script calls upon him to emote in more complex ways, he just seems cut adrift. Neither he nor the others are helped by speeches in the second act that tell more ("folds leave scars," "listen to your heart") than they show.
Director Celeste Cosentino keeps the early part of the production running smoothly and she shapes a number of telling silences. But on stage, too many silences, like too many opposites, can eventually become an affectation.
And Animals Out of Paper, for all its strong points, is ultimately more affected than affecting.