It's tough not to walk into Quiara Alegría Hudes' Water by the Spoonful at Second Stage Theatre with some pretty high expectations. After all, the show picked up the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. And, while audiences' anticipation for this sometimes meandering and overstuffed drama might have been raised a bit too high by the imprimatur of the award, the piece, and production staged by Davis McCallum, has its share of rewards, proving both touching and moving.
The play is the second in a trilogy centering on the Ortiz clan of Philadelphia. In Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, which ran off-Broadway in 2006, audiences met three generations of Ortiz men, all of whom had served in the U.S. armed forces. In Water, the youngest of the men, Elliot (Armando Riesco), has returned from his tour of duty in Iraq and is facing a host of personal issues.
In addition to suffering from a leg injury that got him honorably discharged, Elliot is haunted by both literal ghosts, including one man he encountered in the Middle East (the multiply cast Ryan Shams), and metaphorical ghosts from his troubled childhood. Alongside all of this he is coping with the death of Ginny, the unseen aunt who raised him after his birth mother abandoned him.
It's this recipe for high drama that Hudes gently and provocatively mines, particularly as she a runs a parallel storyline through the play that features an online support group for recovering addicts, moderated by Odessa (Liza Colón-Zayas), who is herself a recovering crack addict. Even as Elliot, along with his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), deals with family crises, Odessa is working with a young Asian-American woman (Sue Jean Kim), known only by her screen name, "Orangutan," who's got issues related to her adoption; and a middle-aged IRS employee (Frankie Faison), known by the handle "Chutes and Ladders," who's been estranged from his son for 10 years.
All of these characters' stories serve to enrich the play thematically. They also strengthen Hudes' overarching exploration of how dissonance can result in freedom, an idea that music professor Yaz raises in a lecture. Unfortunately, Hudes keeps Elliot's and her tale separate from Odessa's online world through the entirety of the first act. And sadly, her bifurcated structure leaves theatergoers both intrigued and frustrated as they wonder how the two worlds relate–which they eventually do–to one another.
Further, once Elliot's story picks up steam in the second act, the play becomes bogged down in resolving the crises faced by Orangutan, Chutes and Ladders, and a third, new member of the group, Fountainhead (Bill Heck), a yuppie who's just coming to grips with his own addiction issues.
Mitigating these problems is Hudes' gift for both a well-crafted joke and colloquial lyricism. Audiences will be hard pressed not to roar when Elliot offers up an observation about carnations at funerals or smile in appreciation at a simple turn of phrase such as the moment Chutes and Ladders warns Orangutan off of searching for her birth parents: "a hundred bucks says your heart comes back a shattered light bulb."
The play feels overwhelmed by Russell H. Champa's overly frenetic lighting design, combined with Neil Patel's scenic design and Aaron Rhyne's projections, which attempt to fuse the physical world with an online reality through the use of abstract verdant landscape. However, at the center of the production are the company's beautifully wrought performances that are as appealing as they are touching. Riesco's edgy, goofball turn--it's quite clear that he's been living with Elliot for over six years now--results in a winning performance that feels so natural, one might never know he's acting.
Similarly, Guevera, who played the woman who raised Elliot in this play's precursor, brings a combination of grit and poise to her turn as Yaz, a woman, who, though raised in the barrio, has moved on to a more rarefied existence. From the online world, Colón-Zayas brings both warmth and desperation to her turn as Odessa, while Kim and Faison provoke both smiles and plunk heartstrings as her compatriots in recovery. Perhaps most impressive is Heck, who makes Fountainhead's arrogance and sense of entitlement pitiable rather than off-putting.
The third piece of Elliot's story, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will have its premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theatre this spring. And it's almost certain that audiences will be eager to see this piece after experiencing both the rich joys and problematic excesses of Water by the Spoonful.