Review: In Letters of Suresh, four people search for connection via Snail Mail

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It’s like I saw Rajiv Joseph’s play a lifetime ago Paper animals. It was in 2008 and I was writing for a website called NYTheatre.com, an outlet that is now so now defunct, even the Internet’s famous “Wayback Machine” has trouble finding it. I was recently researching my review of this Second Stage Theater Uptown production, just to see what I had to say when I was younger, but alas, all I have are a few sentences picked out of context by a book editor and used at the start of the published edition of the script: “Paper animals is one of the most satisfying new works I’ve seen all year… funny and sad, down to earth and unpretentious, with a lot of meaning… Joseph’s piece is refreshingly authentic.

I would like to use a lot of those same words to describe Suresh Letters, Joseph’s new sequel to Animals, whose Second Stage is previewed at their 43rd Street base until October 24. You don’t need to have seen the original to follow along and enjoy this lovely sequel, which 13 years later would have been in high demand from audiences. Joseph provides all kinds of background information you might need as an exhibit, although those who ventured into the McGinn / Cazale Theater over a decade ago and cherish the memory, like me, will once again find themselves under the grip of a protagonist and a handful of delicious Easter eggs.

Animals, in short, followed the tumultuous relationship between an origami master, his gifted prodigy Suresh, and his gentle calculus teacher. The only hold here is Suresh (Ramiz Monsef), now an enigmatic twenty-year-old who has, for years, had an equally stormy correspondence with Father Mitsuo Hashimoto (Thom Sesma), an old Japanese priest. There is a play, Father Hashimoto was reduced to tears just watching Suresh bend a bird with a piece of yellow paper. Now he’s dead, and his great-niece, Melody (Ali Ahn), tries to contact Suresh to inform him both of this news and that Father Hashimoto not only kept every letter, but the bird. yellow, too, and everything is in his possession. It sends everyone, including Suresh’s older lover, Amelia (Kellie Overbey), on journeys of self-discovery as they search for a tangible connection with each other.

This is a play and production filled with nostalgia, a trait the four actors have inherently imbued with their performances in different ways. For Ahn’s melodious loquacious, it’s an inability to stand still. For Overbey (who played the origami master in Animals), it operates at an uncomfortable distance from others. Sesma, who only appears briefly at the end, is quiet, but not necessarily at peace. And Monsef’s Suresh keeps moving around, looking for something to hang his hat on and call home. It’s a tough game to make – the characters rarely, if ever, interact, and May Adrales’ speedy production emphasizes the distance between the characters through the use of a very large Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams set. But it all feels effortless, as if they were born with the words of Joseph’s soft, unbiased handwriting.

I was surprised at how moved I was to now watch a play about communication difficulties, but we are following a pandemic that has cut everyone off from each other, and we are all just starting to reunite with our friends and colleagues after a long absence. It also extends to the theater, as we come together for our first shows, and this unusually graceful play is a very welcome comeback.

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