Addiction binds and tears apart the characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes’ potent and poetic play Water by the Spoonful, currently casting a pensive spell over Studio Theatre.
Under KJ Sanchez’s brisk direction, this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about blood ties and chosen families, crackheads in recovery, and hanging on by your fingernails in all sorts of situations takes flight, aided by a fervent cast.
Set in North Philadelphia, Water by the Spoonful is the middle play in Hudes’ musically-inclined “Elliot Cycle,” depicting the struggles and scars of Puerto Rican-American Elliot Ortiz (played at Studio by Arturo Soria in a powerful DC debut), a Marine recently back from a tour in Iraq. The first play, Elliot, a Solder’s Fugue, deals with Elliot’s experiences in the military, as well as those of his father and grandfather, has Bach-like cadences. The final chapter, The Happiest Song Plays Last charts Elliot’s journey to wholeness and features Puerto Rican folk music.
With Water, Hudes is influenced by John Coltrane’s improvisational, cacophonous jazz in her portrayal of Elliot at a crossroads. He is working at Subway but wants to be an actor—a running riff in the play has people recognizing him from a Spanish toothpaste commercial. When family crises erupt, Elliot leans on his cousin Yazmin (Gisela Chipe, a fierce, vivid presence), a music professor teaching her students about the expressive dissonance of Coltrane. He is also visited by the ghost of an Iraqi man (the always commanding Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who utters one sentence about a passport that must have hidden significance for Elliot.
Elliot and Yaz’s lives overlap with that of an online chat group led by Odessa (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), a recovering crackhead who projects a Zen-like aura in her online avatar Haikumom. She offers a cyber-couch where folks like Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke, in a taut, electrifying performance), Chutes&Ladders (Vincent J. Brown, both amiable and conflicted in the role) and newbie Fountainhead (Tim Getman) hang out and trade wisecracks and jibes and call each other on their lies and self-delusions.
The two worlds collide on Dan Conway’s evocative set—a tenement walk-up apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen and mismatched chairs—that expresses the discord between cold reality and the warmth we conjure through our dreams and the images we project through online encounters.
There’s a lot brewing in Water and not all of it percolates. The play takes place in 2009 and although the emotions resonate as Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders try to join the “land of the living” and become friends in real life, the whole notion of online chat rooms with moderators and people online who are not who they appear to be somehow feels a little retro and trite.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL
Set to close April 13, 2014
1501 14th St. NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $65 – $75
Tuesdays thru Sundays
As dynamic as Getman’s performance is, the character of Fountainhead, a brazen capitalist with an ego the size of Microsoft, doesn’t reveal anything new. Even his attempts to hide his addiction from his perfect wife and sons ring hollow. The online subplot mostly feels like background noise.
What gets you in the gut is the painful and surprising connection between Elliot and the crackhead chat room—and how this revelation forces him to face some suppressed drug dependencies from this past. It also compels him to examine the nature of family—the one you are stuck with and the one you populate with people who’ve got your back.
When Mr. Soria’s Elliot recounts the story behind the play’s title, the drama furiously leaps to life. You are both horrified and transfixed by his story of the chokehold addiction has over people’s choices. What really stays with you is how the damage inflicted by drugs wounds not only the addict, but the ones they love. As Elliott shows, these wounds form scabs, but never, ever heal.
Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes . Directed by KJ Sanchez . Featuring Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey, Tim Getman, Arturo Soria, Gisela Chípe, Vincent J. Brown, Amy Kim Waschke, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. Set Designer: Dan Conway . Lighting Designer: Michael Giannitti . Costume Designer: Ivania Stack . Sound Designer: Christopher Baine . Dramaturg: Lauren Halvorsen . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.