Pulitzer Prize Winner 'Water By The Spoonful' Opens Off-Broadway: REVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
2012 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Drama, Water By The Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, opened Off-Broadway on Tuesday in a New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre. Directed by Davis McCallum, the play attempts to explore the complex nature of addiction and recovery, trauma, loss, and the ties of kinship, both familial and unconventional.
The story moves between scenes set in and around Philadelphia, and those set in an online forum, where characters known to each other only by their onscreen avatars participate in an ongoing support group for recovering narcotics addicts.
The off-line story follows two loving cousins dealing with a death in their close extended family, whose roots trace back to Puerto Rico. As Elliot, a young veteran adjusting to life after his return from Iraq, and Yaz, an adjunct professor of music, Armando Riesco and Zabryna Guevara exhibit a genuine familial rapport and each deliver grounded and touching performances.
In a parallel story that remains separate from the latter for Water's first act, characters in an online community speak about overcoming addiction and battling the internal demons they all share.
Frankie Faison (Fences) plays username 'Chutes and Ladders,' a gay middle-aged African American man with a mordant wit and a penchant for cutting through crap. Sue Jean Kim plays 'Orangutan,' a young Asian American adopted at a young age, logging on from Japan where she seems to be running from herself and chasing her roots in equal measure.
Conflict arrives with the contributions of new user 'Fountainhead,' played by Bill Heck (The Public's Merchant of Venice), a highly functioning white collar addict snidely reluctant to admit he has more than a recreational problem. Liza Colón-Zayas is particularly affecting as 'HaikuMom' (aka Odessa), the site's maternal administrator and censor for foul language or intent.
Midway through, the stories connect at last when Odessa turns out to be part of the same Puerto Rican family: Yaz's aunt and Elliot's mother. A caring and poetic 'HaikuMom' to her online comrades, her struggle with addiction made her devastatingly delinquent in her real maternal duties. The deceased family member was her sister, who succeeded in raising Elliot where she failed, and her son will never let her forget it.
With much of its dialogue set online, the play presents a challenge to compelling physical staging. Under McCallum's direction, online players direct their speech exclusively toward the audience, speaking in hyper-articulate long-form monologues, impulsive emotional outbursts, and the occasional LOL (for practical reasons that are perhaps obvious, gestural reference to typing is eschewed). Computers are sometimes present, but mostly not, and characters meant to be participating in the chat room react to each other's dialogue but don't look directly at one another.
Their connectivity in isolation both as addicts and members of an online community, though surely part of the point, does not always make for visual—or visceral—drama. As the play unfolds and emotional stakes heighten, it becomes increasingly difficult to connect with characters that aren't dynamically interacting with each other on stage.
Neil Patel's set, a curious combination of artificial greenery and coarse industrial walls featuring cameos by everyday furniture, embodies the production's somewhat muddled approach to material that often chafes under naturalistic presentation.
"Talking about ideas," Yaz tells her cousin Elliot, "isn't saying something, it's making syllables with your mouth." Ultimately, there is no mistaking Hudes' hand with language and ideas, and her wide range of understanding when it comes to human instinct and psychological turmoil. But a unique voice certainly begs an equally imaginative theatrical presentation. As Yaz continues, "ideas don't fill the void, they just help you articulate it."
You can follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter @Mr_NaveenKumar.
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