Intimations of Life: Rajiv Joseph’s Suresh Plays

If I had had to stage Magnificent Obsession as a play I wouldn’t have survived. It is a combination of kitsch, and craziness, and trashiness. But craziness is very important, and it saves trashy stuff like Magnificent Obsession. This is the dialectic — there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.

Douglas Sirk, Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday

Animals Out of Paper strikes me as a straightforward melodrama. This is not an insult. Plenty of classic plays are fundamentally melodramas. Hedda Gabler is a melodrama. Despite its comic reputation, Tartuffe is also a melodrama. So are several plays by Shakespeare (As You Like It, All’s Well That Ends Well, Cymbeline et al) and about half of Euripides (Alcestis, Helen, Medea et al).

In the ancient Greek tradition of melodrama, audiences show up for music (melos) plus action (drama). The presence of the chorus anchors everything, providing music as well as commentary in case the audience gets confused. Characters go through travail along with emotional and social vicissitudes, then everything ends on a high note. In our ostensibly more enlightened times deeply influenced by cinema, dramatists often hand the role of the chorus over to the soundtrack composer. Plays also are freer now to end without resolution but the form remains virtually the same. As Douglas Sirk, the master of American melodrama on film, once put it, “What used to take place in the world of kings and princes has since been transposed into the world of the bourgeoisie. Yet the plots remain profoundly similar.”

And so it is with Animals Out of Paper. To establish the melos as a real factor, not only is there music electronically piped into the theater, one of the protagonists wears headphones that connect him to the external music. He is also a freestyling hip-hop MC.

And of course there’s the drama. And how dramatic! A love triangle: He loves her, and he loves her, but she loves no one and nothing, though she appreciates his genuineness and optimism that she wishes she had, and appreciates his gifted creativity and directness that she has turned her back on.

Rajiv Joseph has chosen for his melodramatic situation a curious set of variations. The love triangle is not, for a change, an equilateral. This one is as scalene as it gets, largely because the beloved of the two men comes off as completely incapable of returning anything seriously.

I said men. But the second variation of Mr. Joseph’s melodrama is that one of the men is barely a man at all. He is an 18 year-old student of the other man. While it is explicitly stated and obvious that the teacher is in love with the woman — who is also a teacher, a tutor in this case — it is not at all obvious that the student is. His adolescent tropes obscure his feelings about everything. Which is of course the point. Rather than being a typical second fiddle, the teenaged Suresh is more like a soloist on another stage completely.

Nevertheless, this is classic bourgeois melodrama, filled with that combination of crazy and trash that brings it into the realm of art.

People watch melodrama, I think, for the variations but also for the familiarity. In the Greek tradition every single audience member already knew the outcome of the plays, since the characters and situations were derived from religion. In contemporary melodrama there is less certainty but there is still an insistence on familiar outcome.

The outcome in Animals Out of Paper, too, is familiar enough. No one will confuse it with the genuine bleakness of Jon Fosse or Sarah Kane. After all, Ilana the origami artist who tutors Suresh ends heartbroken but at least she can fold again, which resolves her primary arc.

And too we have the Steadfast Character, the one who remains the same as ever, in the the form of Andy. Melodrama depends on this kind of moral simplicity. As Sirk put it, “In melodrama it’s of advantage to have one immovable character against which you can put your more split ones. Because your audience needs — or likes – to have a character in — the movie they can identify themselves with: naturally, the steadfast one, not to be moved.”

While he insists on the Steadfast Character as an anchor, Sirk’s preference, like Mr. Joseph’s, is for characters who are doubtful, ambiguous, uncertain. Within the rigidity of the Hollywood studio system, this allowed him under the guise of melodrama to explore irony and a particular sort of rondo in which his protagonists end where they began. I suspect Mr. Joseph is after something similar. But he lacks Sirk’s pessimism. Ilana does indeed wind up in the same windowless room in which she began, alone, but the scene is different. Where at the beginning the studio is filled with scattered, disordered newspapers, Chinese takeout boxes, files and folders (do people still use these in the 21st Century?), by the end the studio is completely in order. Suresh has forced an order onto her chaos. Everything is neat. Paper garbage is visually replaced by paper animals, exquisitely shaped. The human Suresh transforms Ilana’s human life into an absolute mess, while the genius Suresh transforms her environment into an immaculate showroom. Sirk would be proud of the irony.

Duygu Erdoğan Monson and Akul Sood imagine a world of folded dimensions.

Melodrama is really all about performance, and without an impeccable cast, even as fine a melodrama as Animals Out of Paper would tend to grate on my nerves, especially since that which is shocking about sex and morality (indeed such shock is the basis of American melodrama) holds zero shock for my rather skeptical eye. Fortunately, director Julie Beckman has let the actors take over while the writing more or less takes care of itself. And this is a fine group of actors.

I saw the Orange cast out of the two casts on the boards, but I have utter faith that Pratidhwani and ReAct Theater would never assemble a cast that was less than optimal so what I saw would likely be what one who saw the Purple cast would have seen. Daniel Christensen seems like Andy was written expressly for him, especially with his gift for verbal cadence and his outstanding comic timing. He is the perfect Steadfast Character, even if his steadfastness tends to the milquetoast side rather than the heroic one. At the other vertex of the triangle, Duygu Erdoğan Monson plays the split character of Ilana with her usual aplomb and intellect. It’s the closest I imagine she’ll ever get to playing Lana Turner and she does so with obvious intelligence. Similarly Akul Sood portrays Suresh the boy genius impeccably, giving him that combination of visionary clarity and utter self-absorption that makes boy geniuses so infuriating.


I had the illuminating experience of seeing Letters of Suresh before Animals Out of Paper. This may have provided me a certain bit of joy not only in seeing the lovely set of Brandon David Riel adapt so perfectly to both dramas, but also seeing character of Suresh in Animals Out of Paper as a kind of Tartuffe himself: a character about whom I’ve heard everything from everyone, even in his own words, but who only becomes a solid human when seen in the flesh.

Letters of Suresh is, essentially, a series of interlocking monologues. That they are epistolary simply gives Mr. Joseph an opportunity to indulge in his penchant for heightened language and poetic imagery. And indulge he does. Beginning with Suresh’s rather vulgar first letters to Father Hashimoto as a teenager to a decade later version of Suresh the Destroyer of Worlds, Letters shows that people grow up but they remain just as mysterious as they ever were.

That doesn’t seem like much, but in this world of sequels and franchises and otherwise vapid fictions, it is refreshing. If there is one thing in contemporary theater, television, and cinema that particularly annoys me, it is the inflated emphasis on “backstory” — a doublet so inflated that it’s swallowed two words on its own to become one. The canard within this obsession with backstory is a belief that the random events of someone’s life must surely explain everything about their present behaviors, and that if only the audience knew enough about someone’s past, every single human action would make sense.

This is ridiculous, of course, but nothing stops people from believing nonsense instead of accepting the bitter reality that neither things, nor events, nor people always make sense.

The closing fugue of Letters of Suresh.

In Letters of Suresh, the author insists on expanding on this character’s continuing mystery and by proxy the mystery of Father Hashimoto by giving further epistolary opinions about the title character from a frustrated writer and a former lover, not to mention Suresh himself and, in the final revelation, from Father Hashimoto. Given Mr. Joseph’s gift for language, the play is a rich and polyphonic experience.

Again the cast is exquisite, as I expect from ReAct and Pratidhwani. It’s good to see Mona Leach again as Melody (the name, again, a Rajiv Joseph tip of his melodramatic hat). I’ve not seen Nirvan Patnaik before on stage, but after this I should certainly like to see more. His skill at portraying Suresh at all stages of his very nonlinear evolution offers a great richness within the play. Marianna de Fazio proves that she remains one of the most gifted and most incomprehensibly overlooked actresses in the city, and I still have no idea why. She has a magnificent stage presence, a truly lovely voice, and gives everything she does a sense of reality so solid that it becomes difficult to imagine her role being done by anyone else, any other way. And Stephen Sumida, of course, is an absolute legend whom I’ve been watching since I first started reviewing theater way back when. His Father Hashimoto is an elegant swan song, and I’m saddened to hear of his retirement from the stage yet deeply appreciative of all the work he has left behind.

With such crisp writing, such clear staging, and such fantastic performances, Letters nevertheless sticks in my craw. Why?

Because Letters is really a radio play.

I don’t say that to demean Rajiv Joseph’s writing. Indeed the author has written a radio play himself. He obviously respects the form and is interested in audio drama. I say this because this material particularly would benefit from being purely audio. The staging is largely static, but it isn’t like a Richard Maxwell or Mac Wellman play where the static quality is actually the main tool and the point of the drama. Instead, it reminds me of the problem with Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter when staged.

Pinter’s play was originally written for radio. It’s fundamentally about two people’s opinions of a character who is literally never seen yet always present. When staged, a human body must nevertheless be on stage, and this detracts from the dialogue which, in the radio version, may or may not be about a person who is actually there, and is probably really only a projection of the subconscious desires and struggles of the two main protagonists.

Similarly, Letters of Suresh is about a character who is actually physically absent. How much better, then, how much richer with meaning and mystery the play would be if there were no human bodies — however beautiful they are — to distract from the drama. Staging the play with physical reminders of human limitation hampers further imagination.

Still, it is worth it simply to sit in the theater and listen to the lush voices of the actors. I found myself closing my eyes to concentrate and focus on the text and the beauty of the language. Radio would have made this easier, certainly. But the experience is still available, even in the three dimensional space of the theater.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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