To some, it's still a mystery how Quiara Alegría Hudes' Water by the Spoonful managed to garner the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. It's a solid play on the ever-interesting topic of recovery (and efforts toward that end), but it's not especially groundbreaking or earth-shattering — unlike, say, Lynn Nottage's Ruined, which won in 2009. But director Scott Edmiston's sleek Boston-premiere production at the Lyric Stage gives the text its best shot.
The three-quarters arena stage starts out bare but for suspended streamers, among which are interspersed small video screens displaying a continual loop of dripping water. Later, these screens will be used to introduce the usernames of the various characters who will be logging on (much of the "dialogue" consists of web-chat entries) and as minimalist reminders of changing scenery.
The queen bee at the center of this hive of self-improvement is one "haikumom," aka Odessa (Mariela Lopez-Ponce), a Puerto Rican "practitioner of the custodial arts" who enjoys mothering others who cling, like her, to the dream of a post-addictive life. Odessa, we soon learn, is not exactly an optimal role model: By the play's end, the missteps that prompted her to clean up her act will catch up with her big time, kicking her back to the curb. So flawed is Odessa, in fact, that we are led — somewhat heavy-handedly — to the conclusion that what's salubrious is connection of any kind, even if the hand being offered comes soiled.
Haikumom's online flock consists of a Whitman's Sampler of struggling addicts, ex- and not quite. "Orangutan" (Theresa Nguyen) is a smart-alecky young Japanese-American adoptee who decides to go back to her natal country to seek out her roots; online, she forms a substitute-father attachment to "Chutes & Ladders" (Johnny Lee Davenport), a 50-ish IRS lifer who has grown too set in his ways. Into this cozy claque intrudes "Fountainhead" (Gabriel Kuttner): Clearly an Ayn Rand aficionado, he's a flailing ex-executive who finds himself risking family and livelihood with his growing taste for crack. Fountainhead comes on as a boastful, over-entitled jerk in full denial; no wonder the group comes down on him, hard.
Two "real-life" characters — plus a ghost — round out the cast. Eliot Ortiz (Gabriel Rodriguez) is a 24-year-old Iraq vet whose scars aren't limited to an injured leg (the ghost is a haunting flashback). Yazmin (Sasha Castroverde), his slightly older cousin, represents as the family member who made good, with a post as adjunct professor of music. How their stories tie in with Odessa's is the thread Hudes uses to build dramatic tension, not always compellingly.
The actors round out their characters' rather thin bios with varying degrees of success. Lopez-Ponce comes across as too pulled-together and peppy (yes, Odessa is a cheerleader, but not in the usual sense). Nguyen's insistent sass as Orangutan is unrelenting to the point of tedious, and Castroverde gives us a smarmy Goody Two-Shoes whose lines seem lifted from a telenovela.
The men fare better: Rodriguez's wounds, physical and emotional, are convincing, and Kuttner's preening as Fountainhead would merit a shunning in any boardroom, as well as this chatroom. The warm heart of the production is Johnny Lee Davenport, who shows us the end result of a life and family thrown away. He's touching, he's funny, and his Chutes & Ladders is fully present, in a way that the other characters, whether "real" or disembodied, rarely manage to be.