Liza Colón-Zayas, Armando Riesco, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison and Sue Jean Kim
in a scene from Water by the Spoonful
(Photo credit: Richard Termine)
Water by the Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama, is one of a handful of plays that had not been seen in New York when they won their award. The second play in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot Trilogy, this play is having is first local staging courtesy of Second Stage Theatre again under the direction of Davis McCallum and using three of the actors who appeared in his Hartford Stage Company’s world premiere. It is only the third play written as part of a cycle to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first play in the trilogy, premiered in 2006 at the Culture Project produced by Page 73 Productions. A play for voices, it brings together Elliot Ortiz’s experiences in Iraq, 2003, his Pop’s time in Vietnam in the late 1960’s and his Grandpop’s Korean War hitch in 1950, as well as his mother Ginny’s time in the Army Nurse Corps in Vietnam where she meets his father George. Back home in North Philadelphia, Elliot, a nineteen-year-old marine, contemplates his second tour of duty after being wounded in the leg. Written in a style that approximates poetry, the play was also directed by McCallum and included Armando Riesco as Elliot and Zabryna Guevara as Ginny, both of whom appear in the Second Stage production of Water by the Spoonful, though Guevara plays Elliot’s cousin Yazmin in the latest play. The third play in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will be premiered by Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in April.
Although Hudes’ plays are being referred to as the Elliot Trilogy, the eponymous hero is not the central character of Water by the Spoonful. This is, in fact, part of the problem with the first act of the play which is almost entirely exposition: we do not know which of the many stories is the main plot. Now 2009, six years after Elliot first left for Iraq, he is working in a dead end job at Subways and auditioning for occasional acting jobs, while dealing with both his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the constant pain in his leg which required four operations. His 29-year-old cousin Yaz, his closest friend and confidant, an adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore College who is in love with dissonance of jazz, is just signing the papers for her divorce from the very Caucasian and blond William. Then they receive the news that Elliot’s mother Ginny has had a heart attack and is in the hospital, news which turns their lives upside down.
On the other side of Philadelphia, their Aunt Odessa (screen name Haikumom) has been administering a website for recovered crack addicts, like herself. Among her daily contacts are Orangutan, a college grad who has gone to Japan to find her roots; Chutes and Ladders, a low-level IRS employee in San Diego, clean now for many years but estranged from his family; and a new sign-in, Fountainhead, a yuppie entrepreneur who announces that he is finally ready to drop his addiction but needs help. The first act introduces us to all of these characters and all of their stories. The on-line chat room scenes are played out to the audience so that none of these characters are seen to address each other. At the end of the first act, it is not possible to know where the play is headed.
However, the second act starts with a bang with four of the characters meeting in person and with several of the dormant crises coming to a head. The interconnections between all of the people we have met become clear very quickly. The plot spins out of control as the stakes are raised to a fever pitch. The title is explained as a medical procedure for curing young children of a stomach flu, and becomes a metaphor for the care and comfort we extend to each other, the theme of the play.
In this half, it becomes very obvious why this play has won its Pulitzer. In mixing characters who are Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American and Japanese, Hudes had given her play a world view, which is not always accomplished by recent American drama. Aside from her excellent ear for the way people actually speak, the language of the play is heighten by both poetic imagery and allusions. Water which both comforts and cleanses becomes a major metaphor. This second act is extraordinarily involving, achieving a very satisfying catharsis. The last scene also hints at where the third play will take us.
Zabryna Guevara as Yaz and Armando Riesco as Elliot in a scene from
Water by the Spoonful
(Photo credit: Richard Termine)
While McCallum has not been able to bring focus to the seemingly diffuse first act, his work with the actors has been exceptional. They are all recognizable people from the moment we meet them, not because we have met them before in other plays, but because they are so specific. As the most middle-class and stable member of the extended Ortiz family that we meet, Guevara is memorable as a woman who has escaped the ghetto by drive and determination and yet is continually drawn back to her roots. The pain of Haikumom, aka Odessa Ortiz, is made palpable by Liza Colón-Zayas who created the role in the Hartford Stage world premiere. Surprisingly, Riesco playing Elliot for the fourth time is the least effective, though in this play he is almost a bystander to his own life, being buffeted by fate.
Bill Heck who will be recognizable from both the Signature Theatre productions of Angels in America and The Orphan’s Home Cycle brings authority to the role of the yuppie entrepreneur who is used to being in charge of his life. Both Frankie Faison and Sue Jean Kim, screen names Chutes and Ladders and Orangutan, respectively, inhabit their roles as though they were playing themselves. Ryan Shams appears in three small but significant roles needed by the story.
Water by the Spoonful requires and has received an evocative and poetic setting from Neil Patel, with elaborate slide projection design for the on-line chat room scenes by Aaron Rhyne. Patel’s verdant greenery visible from the opening scene does not completely give up its secret until the final moments of the play. This is a tremendous improvement over Chloe Chapin’s setting for the world premiere production of Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue which failed to accomplish this poetic atmosphere. The contemporary costume design by Esosa and the lighting design by Russell H. Champa add subtly to the mood and stage pictures. Thomas Schall is responsible for the realistic fighting choreography in which Elliot confronts his demons.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful introduces a major new American playwright to New York theater, aside from her book for the musical In the Heights. It is a difficult and demanding play because it doesn’t give up its secrets in its first half. It is a play and a production that is worth the investment of time to let it tell its moving story. The Second Stage cast also has several fine young actors who should be much better known in time to come.
Water by the Spoonful (through January 27)
The Second Stage Theatre, 306 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes