Off-Broadway Theater Review: WATER BY THE SPOONFUL (Second Stage)

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by Cindy Pierre on January 8, 2013

in Theater-New York


Quiara Alegria Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer-Prize winning Water by the Spoonful is a bold and provocative drama that uses cyber technology to illustrate the woes of addiction.  Hudes – book writer for In the Heights – draws from true events and real-life family members to tell the story of Elliot (Armando Riesco), a Puerto-Rican marine back from Iraq with a bum leg, and Odessa (Liz Colon-Zayas), a recovering crack addict that spends all her free time serving as a site administrator to a chat room.  Despite some areas where the cultural and familial lamentations seem to spew out all at once, the writing and acting flow together beautifully at Second Stage Theatre, but both the connections between subplots and the connections between characters and audience are a slow drip.

Cindy Pierre's Stage and Cinema review of Second Stage's WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

Set in Philadelphia – Hudes’ former hometown and the setting thus far for all of her plays – Water by the Spoonful begins with Set Designer Neil Patel’s arresting, one-dimensional depiction of park foliage.  Patel’s trees and shrubs travel up the wall like a vine, making for a creative and unusual depiction of a park.  Though this visual doesn’t work when it’s duplicated for interior scenes later, Patel’s set is also a nice intro to the theme of “not really living,” a concept that is used generously throughout the show.

We first meet Elliot and his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), a music teacher and composer, on the outskirts of the stage.  Thereafter, they meet on the fringe of the performance area several times.  Because Elliot is the protagonist, this appears to be an odd staging choice until we discover what dominates the stage, and subsequently, Elliot and Yaz’ lives.

Cindy Pierre's Stage and Cinema review of Second Stage's WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

The center stage opens to reveal three cyber-chatting characters that each go by a pseudonym that is handsomely displayed as an avatar within Aaron Rhyne’s smart projection design. The nurturing, maternal presence that doesn’t like curse words is Haikumom (later revealed as Odessa), the wild-eyed Asian girl with loads of kinetic energy is Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), and the sarcastic, God-fearing Black man is Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison).  Hudes does a great job of inserting online slang to draw you into their world, but despite well-written banter, their scenes are somewhat off-putting for several reasons.

First, in an effort to simulate the impersonal conversations within a chat room, director Davis McCallum creates an atmosphere during which the characters don’t make eye contact in any way or acknowledge each other’s physical presence.  Except for Ms. Kim coming dangerously close to crossing the borders on several occasions, this works for the distance that needs to be created here.  Unfortunately, these three don’t make any visual contact with the audience either, which alienates us from being able to identify with or feel for them.

Cindy Pierre's Stage and Cinema review of Second Stage's WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

Second, the “real life” scenes with Yaz and Elliot continue to alternate with this cyber world for over an hour before we find out the correlation between all the characters in the play.  The reveal makes for a nice climax before intermission, but the audience is left scrambling to connect the dots throughout the whole first act, wondering if they are watching two different and concurrent plays. The first act is wonderful and clever for intrigue, suspense, and driving the theme of division home, but bad for relativity and patience.

Other troubles within the play occur with the subplot of Fountainhead (Bill Heck), a business professional with a family that can’t seem to come clean about his nose candy to his emotionally troubled wife.  Although he has a compelling backstory, his insertion into the plot is underdeveloped and rushed, making the giant responsibility that he acquires by the play’s open-ended conclusion very hard to swallow.

Cindy Pierre's Stage and Cinema review of Second Stage's WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

Without divulging too much, an important event occurs that causes the real word to collide with the cyber world, and by the second act, the characters are all thankfully communicating with each other, adding some much-needed warmth to the show.  The second act also contains some of McCallum’s most captivating work, most notably a dream sequence (co-staged with fight director Thomas Schall) during which Elliot tries to make a recurring Iraqi Ghost (Ryan Shams) disappear for good.  But does he?

Because Water by the Spoonful is the second installment of a trilogy of plays featuring Elliot’s character and his ongoing struggles (the first was Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue), it’s hard to say if Elliot’s nightmares are truly gone. You might have to see the final installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, when it premieres in April at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, to find out.  There are definitely marvelous life-giving and sustaining moments in this work, but the payoff may not be as satisfying or refreshing as hoped for, even though most of the audience’s questions and frustrations are vanquished by play’s end.

Cindy Pierre's Stage and Cinema review of Second Stage's WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

photos by Richard Termine

Water by the Spoonful
Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theatre
ends on January 27, 2013 EXTENDED to February 10, 2013
for tickets, call 212-246-4422 or visit Second Stage

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