Theater Review: WATER BY THE SPOONFUL (Cygnet Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 12, 2022

in Theater-San Diego

WHEN THE WELL IS DRY,
YOU KNOW THE WORTH OF WATER

In Sidney Sheldon’s hit 1973 novel, The Other Side of Midnight, every other chapter is about either Catherine or Noelle, the two stories of which don’t intertwine  until their paths merge late in the book. Act I of Quiara Alegría Hudes‘s Pulitzer-winning Water by the Spoonful feels similar, in that we pop back and forth between two seemingly unrelated plots. Only in the final words of the act are we given a glimpse of how the main characters are connected; Act II brings it all together.

Melissa Ortiz, Steven Lone

The first plot features two American-born cousins of a Puerto Rican family, Elliot and Yazmin (Steven Lone and Melissa Ortiz), living in the Philadelphia area in 2009. They are each others’ primary support while dealing with their struggles, including Yazmin’s pending divorce, Elliot’s attempts to work at a Subway sandwich shop after a difficult tour of duty in Iraq, and the deeply failing health of their Aunt Ginny, the woman who raised him.

Emily Song Tyler, Catalina Dolores Maynard, Bryan Barbarin

Far less conventional is the other plotline, which has us viewing three participating members of a support chat room for crack cocaine addicts. Smartly staged by first-time Cygnet director Meg DeBoard, the three anonymous members “Orangutan”, “Chutes&Ladders”, and “HaikuMom” (Emily Song Tyler, Bryan Barbarin, Catalina Maynard) make good use of the stage instead of being trapped in thirds of the set, yet it is clear that they are communicating solely through the virtual platform without seeing each other. The online feeling is made clear by the nature of lines (literally saying the “LOL” they just typed) and including entries that we get to hear but which are blocked by chatroom moderator HaikuMom when she believes they’re unsupportive. Initially, much of the chatter is of the God-I-wish-I-could-do-some-crack nature and celebrating days of sobriety, but over time we get more insight into the lives and non-drug-related issues of the three and, later, a fourth (Christian Haines as “FountainHead”).

Emily Song Tyler

The first act truly serves to lay groundwork and accordingly fails to be particularly moving, but Hudes’s invests wisely in this risk, as everything from Act I is necessary for the impact after intermission. In particular, Elliot’s grappling for mental health and his place in the world (and accordingly, Mr. Lone’s strong performance) are gripping; Ms. Maynard takes us on quite a ride through her character’s history and challenges as well. As this reviewer deplores spoilers, the significance of the title is too crucial to be revealed, but it is worth the wait.

Kaivan Ameen Mohsenzadeh

Water by the Spoonful is the second in the set of standalone plays by Ms. Hudes, known as The Elliot Trilogies, which follow the trajectory of Elliot, the same vet from Philadelphia, and was inspired by the playwright’s own childhood growing up in the same city. The first in the trilogy, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, follows the character as he returns home from serving in Iraq and confronts the high price of war. The third and final play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, explores both Elliot and his cousin Yazmin’s search for love, meaning and a sense of hope in a quickly changing world. While it would be intriguing to go back to watch the initial play now, Water by the Spoonful stands on its own without feeling like we’ve jumped into Season 2 of a series.

Catalina Dolores Maynard

Cousin Yazmin teaches music at the college level and has a passion for discordant jazz, especially that of John Coltrane, who was among those who invented the concept of “free jazz”.  In this genre, the notes are no longer relegated to the harmonic tones we are used to and any note can be as good as another. Before the show we are treated to (or punished with, depending upon one’s take on free jazz) the music of the legendary master. Like it or not, the atonal patter supports a theme in the show: Not everything has to be perfectly in its place and work the way it’s expected to for one to appreciate it and, perhaps, find beauty in it.

Conversely, it’s easy to see the beauty in Cygnet’s excellent production.

Catalina Dolores Maynard, Christian Haines

photos by Karli Cadel Photography

Water by the Spoonful
Cygnet Theatre Company
Old Town Theater, 4040 Twiggs St.
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on April 24, 2022
for tickets, call 619-337-1525 or visit Cygnet

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