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Letters of Suresh

Theatre Review by James Wilson - October 12, 2021

Ramiz Monsef
Photo by Joan Marcus
To riff on a song from the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, "In twenty-first-century America, we write emails. We write emails." Rajiv Joseph's poignant new play Letters of Suresh, currently in production at Second Stage, shows what we have lost in our reliance on dashed-off messages and immediate shorthanded replies replete with emojis and abbreviations. Conversely, composing a letter, putting the folded piece of paper in a stamped envelope, and sending it with the assistance of strangers on trucks, airplanes, or ships allows for a physical, human connection that is lacking from instantaneous digital messages.

In Letters of Suresh, Melody Park (Ali Ahn), a 40-year-old single woman and writing teacher, has come into the possession of a box of letters—and an origami bird—from her recently deceased great uncle in Nagasaki. Written over the span of five years, the missives were penned by Indian American Suresh Thakur (Ramiz Monsef), who was just eighteen when the correspondence began. Although Melody is able to read just one side of the exchange (Suresh's), she is moved by the cross-continental relationship between her uncle, a Catholic priest, and the brash and prone-to-swearing young man.

For the first part of the play, Melody recites her own dispatches to Suresh, whom she is trying to track down in order to return his box of letters. We then meet the author of the original notes, a self-described mathematical genius but lacking in "emotional intelligence." The letters reveal Suresh's deep pain over the death of his mother when he was just sixteen. They also allude to a few passionate love affairs with women old enough to be his mother. One of these women, Amelia Wren (Kellie Overbey), whose life has been turned upside down as a result of her relationship with Suresh, re-enters his life (from a distance) and forms an epistolary bond with Melody.

The genesis of the back-and-forth communication, Father Hashimoto (Thom Sesma), is an enigmatic figure, since we do not get the complete side of his correspondence. Suresh's letters, however, intriguingly allude to the priest's fascination with the origami bird, his miraculous survival of Nagasaki's bombing, and hints of enduring grief. Fortuitously, one of Father Hashimoto's letters materializes to answer these lingering questions.

Ali Ahn
Photo by Joan Marcus
Letters of Suresh is a companion piece to Joseph's Animals Out of Paper, which Second Stage produced in 2008. In that play, troubled but brilliant Suresh is taken under the wing of his calculus teacher, Andy Froling. Andy sees in Suresh a natural ability to fold paper and introduces him to an origami expert, Ilana Andrews (played by Overbey in the original production). Ilana takes Suresh to Nagasaki for an origami conference and he falls deeply in love with his mentor. It is during this trip that Suresh meets Father Hashimoto.

Audiences do not need to know Animals Out of Paper to appreciate the current work, but the plays complement each other nicely. In fact, Letters of Suresh easily could have been titled People Out of Paper. As the letters accumulate, the existential observations, seemingly random memories, psychic scars, and fragmented lives gradually cohere, and complex, fully formed individuals emerge from the pages. It is a breathtaking feat of dramaturgy.

Under the direction of May Adrales, the cast is in perfect harmony and, individually and collectively, they are heartbreakingly good. This is all the more impressive on account of the play's structure. Except for a short section in which Suresh and Amelia talk synchronously via the phone, the characters do not respond directly to each other. Yet the actors, who initially portray damaged and adrift souls, seem to forge intimate personal and spiritual connections over the course of the play.

They are well supported by stunning production elements. The scenes move fluidly among an assortment of apartments across the United States, Japanese gardens, and ocean voyages. The design work of Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams (scenic), Jiyoun Chang (lighting), and Shawn Duan (projection), conveys the effect akin to what one character describes as transferring from the "mundane to the sacred." (Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts's original music and sound design are also evocative, and Amy Clark's costumes—particularly, a jacket-of-many-colors for Suresh—are spot-on.)

Infused throughout Letters of Suresh are references to mass destruction, internal suffering, and inevitable victimhood. The characters are generally isolated and alone, and they send their letters out into the world in the hopeful anticipation they will be retrieved, read, and responded to. Yet, in the end, the play suggests that grace and beauty are all around us if we open ourselves to them. Peace and forgiveness are available to us—but presumably not through an email.

Letters of Suresh
Through October 24, 2021
Second Stage Theater
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: