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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Water by the Spoonful and Tuesdays with Morrie


Armando Batista and Maia DeSanti
Photo by Mark Garvin
Quiara Alegrķa Hudes' Water by the Spoonful is a smart, wide-ranging play with a lot to say about the connections people make with each other in twenty-first century America. But it's also a mess—a play that crams in more plot developments and more symbolism than its slender structure can handle. For every element that makes you empathize with its characters, there's something else that's bound to push you away. Water by the Spoonful won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but in the Arden Theatre's new production, it comes off as an ambitious muddle.

I first became aware of Hudes' work when I saw her fine play Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio in 2010. That play was a gentle meditation on the bonds of family and the military; its central character, Elliot Ortiz, graduated from high school and immediately went off to serve in Iraq. Water by the Spoonful is the second play in a trilogy about the Ortiz family, but it's very different in tone from the first play (and at two hours and twenty minutes including intermission, it's about double the length of the first play). Water finds Elliot back home in Philadelphia, struggling to make it as a TV commercial actor while holding down a low-paying day job. He's also taking care of a sick family member, and his partner in that endeavor is his cousin Yazmin, a Swarthmore College music professor who has her own set of family issues.

The scenes between Elliot and Yazmin are filled with sweetness, sincerity and light humor, and the direct, naturalistic acting by Armando Batista and Maia DeSanti helps to put these scenes across. But the Elliot/Yazmin scenes alternate with ones where strangers using odd pseudonyms stand in random positions on the stage and hurl curses and invective at each other. What's going on here? Eventually, with no help from the Arden's design staff, we figure out that these scenes are set in an Internet chat room for recovering crack addicts—and that one of these chatters is a member of Elliot and Yazmin's family.

It takes too long for Water by the Spoonful to get grounded in reality and find some urgency. The two plot threads finally interact in an interesting way in act two (although that came too late for the guy sitting next to me, who left at intermission). But while Elliot and Yazmin talk to each other, the chatters talk at each other—and Lucie Tiberghien's direction never finds a unified style. The play's narrative drive keeps getting sidetracked by subplots involving the chatters. Not content to allow these people to remain supporting characters, Hudes lets them hijack the play; the play's climax comes not with a big scene for the Ortiz clan but with a long-delayed face-to-face meeting between two of the chatters. As with the heavy-handed symbolism that keeps recurring (an Iraqi rebel who haunts Elliot's dreams, the family story that gives the play its title), Hudes keeps telling us too much about these characters. The result is that Water by the Spoonful has no room to breathe. Hudes has a lot to say—the problem is, she doesn't know when to stop.

Alexis Distler's set design, made of gray blocks that look like concrete panels from a 1960s Brutalist office building, gives the play a chilly, impersonal setting that doesn't serve the story well.

Water by the Spoonful runs through March 16, 2014, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $36-$48 (with discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, or online at www.ArdenTheatre.org.



Danny Vacarro and Richert Easley
Photo courtesy of Bristol Riverside Theatre
If the problem with Water by the Spoonful is that it says too much, the problem with Tuesdays with Morrie is that it says too little. Mitch Albom's book about how he got his life back on track after he reconnected with his dying ex-professor Morrie Schwartz was a huge international bestseller, and the lessons Mitch learned from Morrie about living life to the fullest resonated with millions. But the lessons ("age is not a competition," "love is the only rational act") aren't especially profound or original, and the story, while touching, doesn't have much narrative thrust. A stage adaptation by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher is now playing at Bristol Riverside Theatre and, like the book, it's enjoyable but not too taxing.

In Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom wrote of how, after learning that his favorite college teacher was dying of ALS, the two met every Tuesday for interview sessions in which Morrie told Mitch the lessons about love and forgiveness he'd learned in his eight decades. "You think I'm touch-feely," Morrie says to the uptight Mitch at one point. "What is it about touchy-feely that you hate so much?" "The touching and the feeling," replies Mitch. But after spending time with Morrie all those Tuesdays, Mitch becomes just as touchy-feely himself.

In many ways, Tuesdays with Morrie is the story of how Mitch Albom, a cynical, hard-boiled sportswriter, became the prototypical sensitive man. But the play stacks the deck by showing Mitch getting married around the time of the interviews, making his transformation more complete; in reality, as the book makes clear, Albom had already been married for several years. Also, the book states that Mitch told Morrie he was already planning to write a book about the sessions and that he used the advance money he earned to pay for Morrie's funeral. The play eliminates all of this, but still shows Mitch recording the sessions for some unknown reason. As a result, the play makes Mitch's motives look rather mercenary.

Hatcher and Albom's script gives the story a more linear structure than the book does: we are presented with all of the story's background before the weekly interview sessions begin, rather than learning everything later in flashback. And unlike in the book, the narration is split between both characters; this helps the audience connect better with Morrie. And some things really do work better onstage than on the page: the heartbreaking sight of a weakened Morrie attempting to eat egg salad while unable to control his hands is the sort of thing that words just can't express sufficiently.

Since the story and Morrie's aphorisms don't have much depth, what has to exist for Tuesdays with Morrie to succeed is a convincing sense of warmth between the two lead characters, and Bristol Riverside's production has plenty of that. Richert Easley plays Morrie like a lovable teddy bear, eyes twinkling whether he's dancing or lying in a hospital bed. Danny Vaccaro gives Mitch more of a hard edge, which keeps the play from feeling too light. Susan D. Atkinson's direction gives these two elements the right balance. It's all played out on an especially handsome set by Andrew Deppen.

Tuesdays with Morrie runs through February 16, 2014, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket start at $31, with discounts available for students, groups and military personnel, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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