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Theatre in Review: Letters of Suresh (Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater)

Ramiz Monsef. Photo: Joan Marcus

I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Rajiv Joseph is the only American writer to twice build plays around the practice of origami. The first was the lovely early work Animals Out of Paper; he returns to the subject in Letters of Suresh, which, according to the program notes, was commissioned by Second Stage in 2008, the same year that the company produced Animals Out of Paper. One success would hardly seem to predict another; the Japanese art of paper folding is not natively the stuff of drama. But Joseph has seemingly mastered the art of theatrical origami, twisting and turning his narrative into various shapes to produce a creation of remarkable beauty.

Borrowing a technique from contemporary fiction, Joseph constructs his story out of a series of seemingly random connections among four people scattered around the globe. It begins with Melody Park, a forty-ish creative writing teacher in Seattle, who is dispensing with the effects of her recently deceased great-uncle, a nonagenarian Roman Catholic priest. Melody didn't even know of the existence of Father Hashimoto, a lifetime resident of Nagasaki -- she is doing a favor for her elderly mother -- but she is mildly intrigued to discover evidence of his long correspondence with Suresh Thakur, a resident of Boston. She writes to Suresh, offering to return his letters. When she receives no immediate response, she believes that her message has been ignored or lost. How little she knows.

In any case, Melody is soon penning longer, chattier missives to Suresh, expanding on her drab life and frustrated dream of a writing career; interestingly, her creative block vanishes when expressing herself to an unresponsive stranger. Soon she is reading out loud Suresh's correspondence with Father Hashimoto, to astonishing effect: Her parents begin treating each other with an unaccustomed tenderness; hobbled by age and ailments, they spontaneously fly to London to be reunited with another, estranged, daughter. Suddenly, Melody, their de facto caretaker, feels abandoned. Even so, it startles that, in a moment of drunken anger, she announces, in yet another letter to Suresh, "I think you might be a bad person."

When we first meet Suresh, Melody's description hardly seems to fit. He's a scrappy teenager, a math savant and a bit of an outlier who doesn't bother with trying to fit in. A teacher, discovering Suresh's skill with origami, connects him with a master instructor who is the first of his crushes on unavailable older women. So impressed is she with his talent that she takes him to a global conference in Nagasaki, where Father Hashimoto, spotting the young man making a bird out of paper, bursts into tears, for reasons that will remain unknown until the play's finale.

All of this comes out in Suresh's letters, which, written over the course of several years, become increasingly angry. The young man is a soul in torment, scarred by his mother's death, his unfulfilled personal life, and a career that provides him with good reason for self-loathing. He reacts with fury to the priest's offers of prayers -- indeed, to any conventional expression of Catholic belief -- but he can't stop with these written confessions, which, ultimately, set the stage for a major life transformation.

We also hear from Amelia Wren, a middle-aged, married museum director whose brief affair with Suresh upends her existence, leaving her at loose ends and living in his apartment while he is away; a scene in which she FaceTimes with him is the only two-person exchange in a play otherwise consisting of monologues. Amelia reads Melody's letters, reaching out to her and explaining the profound effect she has had on Suresh. But it isn't until the discovery of a final, unsent letter from Father Hashimoto that we discover everything that links these characters. By then, however, we understand that all are struggling with the sheer mystery of existence -- the ephemeral nature of love, the evanescence of grace, and humankind's potential for destruction. (That the play is partly set in Nagasaki is not a coincidence.) As Father Hashimoto notes, "There is no love without a cross, and no cross without a victim" -- words that will come to haunt each member of this quartet.

I add, with some hesitation, that Letters of Suresh is an unusually Catholic play, if hardly a dogmatic one; Joseph's vision of lives upended by love, not always for the better, is reminiscent of Graham Greene, albeit without the darker hints of damnation. In any case, his characters are so intriguing that one can't help being drawn into their lives. The playwright's mastery is such that a narrative riddled with coincidences is surprisingly easy to accept; that all four characters plausibly correspond via snail mail in the 21st century is an additional technical achievement.

Director May Adrales has assembled a cast that nimbly wrestles with these profound spiritual conundrums. In the title role, Ramiz Monsef believably evolves from a callow, braggart adolescent to a deeply melancholy adult -- "Existence is a flaw," he concludes at one point -- before emerging transformed after a period of contemplation. Equally fine is Ali Ahn as Melody, musing on what might have happened if she had mailed that "letter that said yes to someone;" Kellie Overbey as Amelia, using her crooked smile and self-deprecating manner to good effect as she surveys the wreckage of her family life; and Thom Sesma in a stunning eleventh-hour appearance as Father Hashimoto, offering a story, of love found and lost in the ruins of war, that will reverberate through the decades, touching the others' lives.

Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams' delicately painted blue-and-white set seems rather flat and two-dimensional at first, but its hidden aspects are revealed by Jiyoun Chang's lovely side lighting effects and Shawn Duan's compelling projections of flocks of birds, origami animals, and the ocean. Amy Clark's costumes provide a sharp profile for each character. The sound design and original music by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts appropriately share a distinctly Asian tone.

Letters of Suresh once again suggests that Joseph -- whose previous works include Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Guards at the Taj, and Describe the Night -- has one of the most original minds in American drama. (He never, ever repeats himself.) At first glance, this seems to be an intimate, even modest work. But behind its simple, elegant facade are oceanic depths. --David Barbour

(15 October 2021)

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