Origami is the art of unfolding beauty. It's a delicate craft that celebrates tiny paper creatures that are far more easily crushed than created.

In "Animals Out of Paper," Rajiv Joseph's tender play, origami is also a metaphor for the fragility of the human heart. The Pulitzer-nominated playwright best known for "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" (which opens soon at San Francisco Playhouse) and the Glickman-winning thriller "The North Pool," here charms us with his fresh and quirky characters who tiptoe from melancholic to romantic in a postmodern love story. Directed by Karen Altree Piemme, who is head of outreach at San Jose Rep, this delicate drama runs through Oct. 20 at San Jose's City Lights Theater Company. While the production falls short of the emotional richness the text demands, this is a lovely, sharply observed tale of loss and longing that revels in Joseph's wry sense of wit.

MIKE KO/CITY LIGHTS THEATER COMPANYJanis DeLucia and Danraj Rajasansi star in "Animals out of Paper" at City Lights Theater.
MIKE KO/CITY LIGHTS THEATER COMPANY Janis DeLucia and Danraj Rajasansi star in "Animals out of Paper" at City Lights Theater. ( MIKE KO )

Origami has become a sanctuary for the brokenhearted Ilana (Janis DeLucia). Reeling from a nasty divorce and the loss of her beloved three-legged dog, she hides out in her studio, buried in a mountain of Chinese takeout containers and communicates only with her artwork menagerie. A lavender shark, a pumpkin tiger and a mud-brown hawk are among the treasures in her little personal zoo.

Her bunker is impermeable until Andy (Damian Vega), a dorky calculus teacher who's been crushing on her for years, convinces Ilana to tutor a math prodigy named Suresh (Danraj Rajasansi). At first Suresh seems like a surly, urban teen high on hip-hop and hormones, but the longer Ilana looks at him, the more she sees that origami animals aren't the only things with endless layers. Suresh may throw epithets around, but he has endless patience for explaining how to defrost chicken to his hapless father.

An unlikely love triangle forms between these three sensitive souls, and while the ensemble doesn't fold quite enough details into these eccentric characters, the elegance of the writing shines through. The playwright finds the poetry in crease patterns and the magic of the unpredictable.

Piemme's staging has some tricks up its sleeve, including a sly set change (Ron Gasparinetti) and a pulsing sound design (George Psarras).

The production may suffer from some slack pacing, but the interactions between the origami master and her reluctant pupil crackle with chemistry and verve. Rajasansi captures the bravado of the teenage soul. Vega radiates gentleness as the relentlessly optimistic Andy, who literally counts his blessings every day in a notebook. So far he's got almost 8,000, including drinking tea, looking out the window and having extra wisdom teeth.

Such grace notes are not lost on Ilana, who is desperate to find a way out of her anguish and into a new skin. She realizes that she has to learn from the paper in her hands. Every fold she makes leaves a scar on the fabric.

"Eventually, it probably feels like too many things have happened to it," she notes wistfully. "It's all twisted in something so far from what it used to be."

DeLucia misses the depth of Ilana's despair, but she nicely conveys the relationship between the artist and her craft, the way the paper speaks to her more eloquently than any human.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

'Animals out of paper'

By Rajiv Joseph, presented by City Lights Theater
Company

Through: Oct. 20
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. 2nd St., San Jose
Running time: just over
2 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $10-$30; 408-295-4200, http://cltc.org