‘Animals Out of Paper’ unfolds with power 

If you know absolutely nothing about the technical or spiritual aspects of origami — the Japanese art of paper folding — nor its apparent usefulness in solving certain medical puzzles, you’ll learn lots in Rajiv Joseph’s lovely new play.

Actually, you might feel that you’re learning a little too much: The characters talk about origami’s mysterious properties a lot. A whole lot. But that’s a minor weakness in a script that’s otherwise quite involving.

And the West Coast premiere, directed by Amy Glazer, couldn’t be more beautifully acted and staged, which is practically a given at SF Playhouse.

When the play begins, world-renowned master origami artist Ilana (Lorri Holt), a complex, neurotic woman, is holed up in her messy studio; her marriage is over, her beloved dog has disappeared and she can’t seem to get back to folding, despite an important commission.

When she receives an unwelcome visit from a fan — Andy, a preternaturally perky high school calculus teacher who loves origami — she’s at first hostile and abrasive. But Andy persists.

He has a mission: He wants her to tutor a particularly brilliant student of his, Suresh, a calculus genius with an uncanny talent for origami, who’s grieving the sudden death of his mother.

“I’m not a people person,” says Ilana dryly, but she agrees.

Origami is indeed an intriguing metaphor for the feelings of loss that Ilana and her new protégé suffer: Paper, as the characters discuss, is irrevocably altered as it’s folded. It will never again be what it once was. Folds leave scars, just as losses do. And just so do these three lonely characters affect one another, creating indelible creases.

An especially affecting motif is the little diary that Andy’s been carrying around ever since he was 12, carefully recording his “blessings.” He’s up to about 8,000.

That book takes on all kinds of significance as the two-act play works its way toward a fittingly ambiguous conclusion.

As Andy, David Deblinger is perfectly cast, with an apparently deep understanding of what makes this good-hearted, vulnerable man tick.

And Aly Mawji is equally convincing as the volatile, troubled hip-hop kid; Mawji ably navigates Suresh’s emotional transitions.

Especially impressive is Holt; this unmannered actress is so profoundly tuned in that she never appears to be acting at all. Her performance is subtle and masterful.

The examples of delicate, imaginative origami that decorate Ilana’s studio, created by members of Bay Area Rapid Folders (yes, BARF), make this production truly ­luminous.

A flying hawk, a tarantula, a toad and other paper animals resonate — and the play itself lingers in the mind.

THEATER REVIEW

Animals Out of Paper

Presented by SF Playhouse

Where: 533 Sutter St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Feb. 27
Tickets: $40
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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