Review By Brian Scott Lipton . . .
Even the most experienced writers understand – perhaps even more than most people — the daunting challenge of putting pen to paper to communicate one’s thoughts. So, it’s admittedly easy for people like me to sympathize with – and be moved by — the four characters who comprise Rajiv Joseph’s lovely Letters of Suresh, now at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater.
But as this quartet of troubled souls struggles to properly explain themselves, their lives, their actions and, yes, their own long-buried truths through this seemingly simple act, I suspect everyone in the audience should sympathize with their pain and confusion — and applaud their courage.
The 90-minute piece centers around a series of missives, written over a 10-year period, between two men who barely even met: Suresh Thukur (the charismatic Ramiz Monsef), who we originally meet as an angry if ultra-smart 18-year-old American who has traveled to Japan for an origami competition, and Father Hashimoto (an unseen presence until a haunting late-in-the-play appearance by the superb Thom Sesma), an elderly priest in Nagasaki who spies young Suresh and is visibly overcome by his seemingly simple creation of a paper bird.
As this pair’s unlikely correspondence continues in fits and starts, each man reveals — sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately — another “fold” in their personality. Moreover, each letter ultimately changes not just our perception of who they are, but their perceptions of themselves, especially as they admit their own past mistakes and misgivings.
The same can be said of the two women who, for very different reasons, end up reading these epistles (as well as writing some of their own): Melody Park (the vibrant yet melancholy Ali Ahn), Hashimoto’s great niece, who is living a life of unfulfilled quasi-desperation as a single teacher in Seattle; and Amelia Wren (the endearing Kellie Overbey), a Boston museum educator who enters into an extramarital affair with Suresh with not-altogether-unforeseen circumstances. I do wish Joseph had fleshed out these women and their stories a bit more, even if it meant extending the running time.
Still, all four of these sharply drawn characters prove to be cautionary tales about the dangers of both not telling the truth and telling the truth, both verbally and on paper. Their plights also give us a heightened awareness (as if we need another one during this pandemic) of the complexities of handling daily life and the inalienable human need to love and be loved.
Given the admittedly talky nature of the piece, director May Adrales deserves her own letter of commendation for keeping us involved with the story on all levels. As is often the case at Second Stage, the seemingly simple set (by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams) is more than what initially meets the eye. Scrim after scrim is eventually revealed, each one providing a backdrop for Shawn Duan’s extraordinary and evocative projections, which prove essential to our comprehension of what’s being said onstage.
Intriguingly, Second Stage provides each audience member with a “gift bag” that includes instructions on how to make Suresh’s bird and a couple of pieces of writing paper to pen one’s own letter. Whether you take up these challenges is obviously a personal call, but given Joseph’s words of wisdom, these are suggestions not to be – pun intended — dismissed out of hand.
Letters of Suresh continues at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater (305 West 43rd Street) through October 24. Visit www.2st.com for more information.
Photos: Joan Marcus