Water by the Spoonful: Theater Review

Bill Heck and Liza Colón-Zayas
This initially amorphous drama about family and community proves ultimately quite affecting.

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes' winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama receives its New York premiere.

NEW YORK – The middle installment of a trilogy that began in 2006 with Elliot, A Soldier’s FugueQuiara Alegría Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer winner, Water by the Spoonful, is sharpest when that same central character, an Iraq War vet now returned to his childhood neighborhood of North Philadelphia, is the focus. While the musical correlation of the earlier play is self-evident in its title, this one takes its cue from the dissonant jazz of John Coltrane. As such, it is discursive, jarring at times, even chaotic. But the poignancy and thoughtfulness of the playwright’s observations on addiction, family, forgiveness and human connection build a stealth impact.

Reprising his role as Elliot, who was honorably discharged from the Marines after getting his leg chewed up in Iraq, Armando Riesco gives a lovely twitchy performance full of humor, anger and hope that surfaces almost in defiance of the character’s every natural instinct. Assembling sandwiches at a local Subway store while trying to make inroads as an actor, he is both irreverent and respectful toward his family’s Puerto Rican heritage.

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Elliot is haunted by a ghost (Ryan Shams) from his time in combat, uttering an Arabic phrase that translates as “Can I please have my passport back?” That request encapsulates Elliot’s own bid to recover his civilian identity. His disorientation is heightened by the fact that the woman he calls his mother is dying of cancer, thus removing the vital senior link that has held the community together.

Scenes between Elliot and his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), an adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore College, are the heart of the play. The product of an upscale education in predominantly white institutions, Yaz is still smarting from her breakup with a guy whose family “has Quaker Oats for DNA.” She’s only marginally more comfortable with her place in the world than Elliot.

The first act intersperses the cousins’ stage time with scenes depicting the regulars of an online Narcotics Anonymous forum. Initially known only by their chat-room handles, they include Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), a volatile young Japanese-American woman increasingly obsessed with finding her birth mother; Chutes & Ladders (Frankie Faison), an IRS paper pusher who has pretty much renounced any dream beyond staying clean and no longer inflicting pain on anyone; and Fountainhead (Bill Heck), a Porsche-driving overachiever-turned-crackhead, struggling even to get through Day One of recovery.

The forum is moderated with a mix of Zen-like calm, affection and strictness by Haikumom (Liza Colón-Zayas). Her connection to the characters beyond the chat room is revealed right before intermission, allowing for painful history to be raked over in Act II.

Hudes’ play is an odd mix, and not without flaws, not least because too much of its running time is given over to people talking across cyberspace rather than physically interacting. As recovering addicts, their behavior doesn’t always ring true. But while those sections of the play are somewhat emotionally distancing, there’s also real feeling beneath the playwright’s characters and persuasive evidence of her genuine love for them. They are all people living one day at a time, as the metaphor of the title suggests. It helps also that these are not the standard dysfunctional-family types trotted out in so much new American drama.

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It’s not likely to go down among the great Pulitzer winning plays, but Water by the Spoonful showcases a distinctive voice from a young dramatist best known for her book for the Tony winning musical In the Heights. If the writing occasionally lacks muscle, it compensates with large amounts of compassion, becoming unexpectedly moving in the final stretch. Hudes also shows an agreeable willingness to leave frayed ends in place for the next chapter, rather than pushing for too-tidy resolutions.

Director Davis McCallum draws sensitive work from the entire cast, all of them fully tapped into the idiosyncrasies and melancholy humor of the playwright's characters. Riesco in particular is a find. Keeping the action suspended between “real” and online worlds, Neil Patel’s set design is dominated by the shifting walls of a mosaic that evokes both a vast communication network and lush stretches of Puerto Rican rainforest.

The foundations are clearly laid here for the third part of the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, which premieres in April at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Venue: Second Stage Theatre, New York (runs through Feb. 10)
Liza Colón-Zayas, Frankie Faison, Zabryna Guevara, Bill Heck, Sue Jean Kim, Armando Riesco, Ryan Shams
Director: Davis McCallum
Playwright: Quiara
Alegría Hudes
Set designer: Neil Patel
Costume designer: Esosa
Lighting designer: Russell H. Champa
Sound designer: Joshua Schmidt
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Presented by Second Stage Theatre