When Quiara Alegría Hudes’ “Water By The Spoonful” won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year, the standard response I heard was: What? Who?
The play had never been produced in New York.
Now it has, at Second Stage Theater, with the same director, Davis McCallum, and three of the seven cast members from the Hartford Stage production last year.
Let’s put aside the politics of the Pulitzer and the debate over whether the play deserved the award, especially compared to the finalists, “Other Desert Cities,” by Jon Robin Baitz and “Sons of the Prophet” by Stephen Karam, both of which received high-profile, much-praised productions in New York. Theater is not a competition, or shouldn’t be.
Let’s also put to rest the question of Hudes’ obscurity: Few seem to have remembered that she co-wrote the Tony-winning musical “In The Heights.”
“Water By The Spoonful” turns out to be a thoughtful, inventive, occasionally funny, at times moving story about addiction — about forgetting the unforgettable and forgiving the unforgivable in order to move on. It also explores the new ways we relate to one another – meaning, online – and the search for connection. There are enough vivid characters, fine writing, and startling moments – including the story that explains the title — to make the production at Second Stage worthwhile theatergoing, even if not entirely satisfying.
Elliot Ortiz (Armando Riesco) is a 24-year-old marine veteran of the Iraq War who now works in a Philadelphia sandwich shop, and occasionally models. He was wounded overseas in more than one way: He walks with a limp; he also keeps on seeing the ghost of an Iraqi, who says the same sentence again and again, one Elliot cannot understand since he doesn’t know Arabic.
When the play begins, he is meeting on a park bench with his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), an adjunct professor of music at Swathmore, who is getting a divorce. We are eventually given to understand that she is one of the few members of their extended family who has escaped its general dysfunction and its particular affliction — substance abuse. Yaz introduces her cousin to a professor of Arabic who translates the sentence for him. In this first scene, we learn that Elliot’s mother is dying. Later, we learn that she is not his birth mother.
In the next scene we meet a different set of characters who at first seem to have no connection to the cousins, and indeed little in common with each other – not age nor occupation nor ethnicity, not even geography. They are the members of a chat room for addicts in recovery. They know each other by their avatars and screen-names. Haikumom (Liza Colon-Zayas), a Puerto Rican in Philadelphia, is the administrator, who begins each session with a poem and censors any foul language by her fellow members. Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison), African-American, is a low-level bureaucrat at the I.R.S. in San Diego. Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), Japanese-American, is a recent college graduate who grew up in Maine and decides to visit Japan and perhaps meet her real birth mother. Fountainhead (Bill Heck), a white, well-to-do though now unemployed computer programmer who lives on Philadelphia’s Main Line, is a newcomer to the group, treated with some skepticism and outright hostility, because of his failure to face up to his being a crackhead.
The middle play of an ambitious trilogy that began with the play “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” “Water By The Spoonful” unfolds like a flower, as all of the characters reveal their stories and their struggles, and we witness a kind of cross pollination when unlikely allies connect to one another. We also discover their thorn. HaikuMom in 3D life is Odessa, real-life mother of Elliot, who treats her with far less affection that does her online family — perhaps understandably, once we learn about the past.
A flower is really the wrong metaphor to “Water By The Spoonful.” A comment Yaz makes to her music students is a key to understanding Hudes’ approach, both structurally and thematically. When Yaz plays John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” which the great jazz master composed in 1964, Yaz explains how Coltrane’s dissonance led to resolution, but that after 1965, jazz changed: “The ugliness bore no promise of a happy ending.” In her play, Hudes (who grew up in West Philadelphia and has a degree in music composition from Yale University) is exploring the ugly dissonance of troubled lives, and of the characters’ search for harmony, or at least resolution.
For all the warmth that the playwright communicates, there is much that distances the play from its audience, including an unattractive and confusing set that serves as a distraction from the action, and staging that seems stagnant – far too much sitting on park benches, standing far upstage, or staring out at the audience rather than at each other. That last is the device used to represent the chat room dialogue; we are meant to understand that the characters are typing, which they mercifully don’t actually do. But the staring out to the middle distance while they chat isn’t much better. The result hobbles actors that have mesmerized in previous roles, including Bill Heck (“An Orphan’s Home Cycle”) and Frankie Faison (best-known for playing Commissioner Burrell in “The Wire”) One can appreciate the relatively low-key, grounded performances in this play, in marked contrast to such sensationalistic dramas about addiction like High on Broadway two years ago, and still feel disappointed at the restrictions created by the staging.
Like the flawed, messy lives of the characters, the flawed production is redeemed by the characters themselves. Hudes clearly cares about these people, and treats them with respect, and we come to do so as well.
Water By The Spoonful
At Second Stage Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Written by Quiara Alegría
Directed by Davis McCallum
Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by ESosa, lighting design by Russell Champa, sound design by Josh Schmidt, and projection design by Aaron Rhyne.
Cast: Iza Colón-Zayas, Frankie R. Faison, Zabryna Guevara, Bill Heck, Sue Jean Kim, Armando Riesco, Ryan Shams.
Water By The Spoonful is scheduled to run through January 27, 2013