Theater review by David Cote. Second Stage Theatre. By Quiara Alegría Hudes. Dir. Davis McCallum. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.
As befits a play called Water by the Spoonful, plenty of H2O courses through this landscape of addiction, recovery and provisional families. One character, an ex-crackhead, recalls how he hit rock bottom by nearly drowning. Another, teaching English abroad, marvels at how the Japanese government straightened rivers on the island Hokkaido. A parent’s ashes are scattered over a waterfall in Puerto Rico as a man silently bathes a woman. There’s the horror story that gives the work its title, about a mother’s tragic failure to hydrate her child. Last of all, presumably, are the tears that Quiara Alegría Hudes’s powerful tale could bring to a spectator’s eyes.
Not that Hudes or her collaborators go out of their way to pluck heartstrings: Water (the surprise winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is more clearheaded and wry than sentimental, and never maudlin. Still, the author and her exceptional cast make us feel deeply for these characters, all of whom carry burdens and scars—external and invisible.
The most obvious of the walking wounded is Elliot Ortiz (Armando Riesco), a 24-year-old Iraq War veteran with a bum leg torn up from barbed wire. Hudes introduced this character—based on a cousin who fought in Iraq—in 2006’s Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, a play I am now very sorry to have missed. Sharp-witted, irreverent and brimful of barrio swagger, Elliot’s postwar life has gone nowhere. Although he booked a couple of commercials after discharge, he’s in a dead-end job making hoagies and fending off the demons of PTSD, which take the form of the first Iraqi (Ryan Shams) he killed in combat. The victim’s last words, in Arabic—“Can I please have my passport back?”—become the haunting mantra for floating souls trying to cross borders and get back home.
Elliot’s cousin Yaz (a radiant, wistful Zabryna Guevara) is also troubled, but not by ghosts; instead, this music professor looks back on her low-rent Hispanic upbringing in North Philadelphia with a mixture of disgust and disbelief, not quite sure how she escaped. And yet, when Elliot’s adoptive mother—who also happens to be his aunt—winds up in the hospital, the cousins come together to organize a funeral and revisit the painful past.
Just when you’ve pegged Water as a domestic drama about a Hispanic clan, Hudes broadens her canvas into cyberspace. Scenes of Elliot and Yaz’s bittersweet interactions alternate with enacted dialogues on an Internet message board for recovering substance abusers. We get to know the maternal moderator, Odessa (Liza Colón-Zayas); a wary, middle-aged bureaucrat (Frankie Faison); a neurotic transracial adoptee (Sue Jean Kim); and a cocky corporate shark (Bill Heck), who can’t fully accept his addiction.
Hudes doesn’t satirize or idealize the slogans and coping strategies of 12-step programs; she shows how staying clean is constant work, and how those who put drugs behind them sometimes sacrifice human connection, too.
With its tightly woven thematic fabric and its neat counterpoint structure spanning virtual and real worlds, the play might strike some viewers as schematic or pat. But Hudes is a writer of enormous empathetic gifts, her dialogue is lean and funny, and she knows these people in their bones.
Director Davis McCallum steers a superb ensemble. Riesco is rawly urgent as a man trying to find a place in life. Faison, Kim and Heck all do layered, precise, touching work. And Colón-Zayas, whom I’ve admired since her early Labyrinth days, brings her customary intensity. You don’t take these wonderful actors’ work by the spoonful; you want to gulp gallons.—David Cote
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