Whether they end poorly or well, relationships always leave a mark, like a new memory etching a groove into our brains. That’s a familiar idea, but Rajiv Joseph makes it feel fresh. In “Animals Out of Paper,” he begins with a quirky comedy about origami experts and deftly transforms it into a melancholy reminder that close friends make the worst messes. His journey from one extreme to the other — beautifully wrought by Second Stage’s production — is surprising and specific, pulling honest insights out of unusual situations.
Expertly paced by Joseph and director Giovanna Sardelli, the play earns its painful conclusion by altering the meaning of its central images. In the first scene, lonely origami artist Ilana (Kellie Overbey) is curled on the sofa in her windowless studio. There are take-out containers and bits of paper everywhere; there’s even a giant paper hawk hanging ominously overhead, ready to devour the woman who has crawled in her cave to die.
And then things start changing. Andy (Jeremy Shamos), a calculus teacher who loves Ilana’s work, shows up at her door, cheerily ignoring her pleas to be left alone. Soon, Andy brings over his student Suresh (Utkarsh Ambudkar), a teenage origami whiz, and the three become an odd family.
By the end of the play, when some relationships have imploded and others have grown, we return to Ilana alone in her windowless studio. But this time, the same space has a different meaning. The point is that these people are reshaping each other like their hands reshape origami paper. To make his argument, Joseph toggles between two types of writing. Naturalistic moments are witty and sincere, full of funny jokes that reveal the characters without belittling them. The heightened moments are aggressively symbolic, like when Suresh makes an origami sculpture the exact size of the human heart.
Some of the metaphors are shoehorned awkwardly into the plot, but mostly Joseph masters the balance between believable banter and elegant imagery.
Remarkable perfs enhance every scene. Occasionally, for instance, Ambudkar pulls awkwardly at the front of his shirt, demonstrating that Suresh is still a gangly kid, while Shamos exudes both sincerity and intelligence. He may softly touch beautiful objects and dance a little to the radio, but it’s clear he’s an adult and not some overgrown child.
Overbey’s perf grounds the production. Smart, clumsy and obviously kind, she’s an imperfect person trying to get better at being alive. Even when she slips, it’s easy to cheer her on.