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Water by the Spoonful

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Liza Colón-Zayas, Armando Riesco, Bill Heck, Frankie Faison, and Sue Jean Kim.
Photo by Richard Termine.

Families, in nearly infinite classifications and configurations, being dissolved and recreated are the central focus of Water by the Spoonful, the play by Quiara Alegría Hudes that just opened at Second Stage. Each of the seven people it chronicles is the type to not realize, until far too late, exactly how much he or she needs everyone else around them—by which point, naturally, it usually seems like it's too late. That that's seldom actually the case, and that physical and spiritual redemption are usually possible even beyond the apparent point of no return, is the source of the most striking and moving moments in this always sobering but occasionally too-thin evening.

Chances are that sense of spirt-level hopelessness is also significantly responsible for guiding the play to winning last year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama against the formidable competition of Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet. That (excellent) play and this one share the subjects of fractured homes and young people trying to find their way in an often unfriendly world. And though I would personally give the edge (and the award) to Karam's work, Water by the Spoonful's more open-armed and microscope-like examination of what makes us who we are, and how we can escape—and sometimes embrace—the less-than-fortuitous circumstances of our births touches on feelings and experiences that are at once more intimate and more sweeping.

At its simplest, Hudes's play extends the story of Elliot (Armando Riesco), the honorably discharged marine who was at the center of Elliot, A Solider's Fugue, the 2006 play that helped Hudes make her deep splash in New York. (Though she found more commercial success with the book for the musical In the Heights, which premiered the following year.) The injured Elliot is still haunted by his experiences in the Middle East, particularly an encounter that left a complicated Arabic phrase lodged in his head, but six years after returning to the U.S. he's trying to resume his life and kindle an acting career. A move to L.A. is not out of the picture, but he's being held back by his go-nowhere job flinging sandwiches at Subway, and the ongoing serious illness of his aunt, who raised him after his real mother's crack habit left her unable to do so.

That woman, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), has not repaired her relationship with Elliot, though she's recovered enough to begin providing aid to others. She does this by moderating an online discussion forum for other recovering "crackheads," where she hides her angst and personal disappointment behind a poetry-inspired demeanor and the account name "Haikumom." Her most frequent conversation partners are Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), a young Japanese woman who was raised by American parents, and Chutes & Ladders (Frankie Faison), a late-middle-aged black man of dubious sexuality who's working in a soul-stifling government job. Their circle is expanded with the sudden appearance of Fountainhead (Bill Heck), who purports to be a software entrepreneur with everything going for him except the crippling habit that forced him to quit his job and endangers his wife and children.

By the end of the first act, the plot's two halves have intertwined, and we begin to see how even people who don't meet in person can have profound effects on each other. As long as she's exploring that idea, with each of the two units struggling to understand how to move forward from beneath the burden of a mounting series of tragedies and uncertainties, Hudes spins a wrenching human tale of modern strife that compels with its elegant simplicity and clear-eyed but not empty-headed optimism about our tendency to unleash our best selves at the worst possible times.

Hudes, however, spends most of her time working noticeably hard to draw those connections in many cases, with the results never as organic as they ideally should be. This manifests itself with a disturbing heavy-handedness that renders certain characters, especially Elliot and the online folks, one-dimensional and unbelievable when every one demands more fine-grain nuance. She also becomes a bit too enamored of highlighting her broader themes: The depths of the second act, when she devotes vast swaths of stage time to documenting Orangutan's search for her birth parents and Chutes & Ladders's attempts to reconnect with his estranged son, threaten to smother you in overly obvious symbolism and significance, rather than letting you discover everyone's intimate connections as they do. And the self-consciously poetic nature of the online "dialogue," which echoes the pervasive musicality that was so crucial to Elliot, A Solider's Fugue, doesn't have the same effect in its more arid deployment here.

But when she keeps her vision trained on showing how each person is a keystone affecting others in unpredictable ways, Hudes's play is a satisfying one. She gets plenty of help from the actors, all of whom are outstanding, most notably Colon-Zayas (sumptuously world-weary) and the magnetic Zabryna Guevara as her intensely driven niece Yaz, who demonstrate vastly different attitudes toward life and service that coalesce in bewitchingly intricate ways as the play spirals toward its conclusion. And Davis McCallum's sensitive but expansive direction, which effortlessly guides us between locales as concrete as a park and a rundown apartment (the stylized sets are by Neil Patel) and the World Wide Web (rendered mostly in lights by Russell H. Champa and projections by Aaron Rhyne), is vital in maintaining the proper tone of a universe slowly coming apart at its seams.

McCallum and his company build toward the engrossing finale gradually, more than living up to the play's title, which refers to the way a doctor once advised Odessa to administer fluids to Elliot and his sister to keep them hydrated during a bout with the stomach flu. Alas, it's a dictum that Hudes follows only intermittently, leaving her largely unassuming and successful play too often facing a flood of excess its considerable simple charms aren't strong enough to hold back.

Water By The Spoonful
Through January 27
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
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