Water by the Spoonful

by John Stoltenberg

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize–winning Water by the Spoonful is set in 2009 and takes place mainly in Philadelphia but also travels to San Diego, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Two characters hold the emotional and dramatic center of this sprawling play. One is an extraordinary and beautifully written character named Elliot Ortiz, portrayed in Studio Theatre’s production by Arturo Soria with sun-flare brilliance.  Hilariously nimble-witted and rich in passion and pathos, Soria’s stellar performance must be seen.

Elliot served as a Marine in Iraq. Now returned home to Philadelphia, he is haunted by his recent combat experience (he sometimes sees the ghost, played appropriately apparition-like by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, of his first Iraqi kill). Elliot is also wracked in agony because the woman who raised him is dying of cancer. This woman, named Ginny Ortiz, is the other center of gravitas in the play. She never appears onstage; we come to know her through Elliot’s wellsprings of loyalty and devotion, which are wrenchingly deep. By the time of Ginny’s funeral in Act Two, when her near saintly accomplishments as a community activist are recited and Elliot breaks down eulogizing her, her absence and Elliot’s loss flood the stage with feeling.

Elliot’s and Ginny’s compelling story is intersected by multiple plotlines and diverse characters, none of which pulse with as much authenticity. (A program note by Dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen quotes Hudes recalling of her process while writing the play, “I knew it was going to be big and messy.” And that it is.) The supporting performances are uniformly fine—notably Gisela Chípe as Yazmin Ortiz. But the script is hobbled by a problematic structure that the production (directed by KJ Sanchez) never successfully solves.

In Act One we are introduced to two apparently disparate worlds. One is real-life/real-time, and there we meet Elliot and Yaz, who are cousins yet seem close as brother and sister. The other world is real time but virtual, an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts where we meet four  habitués identified by avatars: Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (“Haikumom”), Tim Gelman (“Fountainhead”), Vincent J. Brown (“Chutes&Ladders”), and Amy Kim Waschke (“Orangutan”). The script’s conceit is that these four characters converse in dialogue typical of online interactions but do so onstage as if they are in the same real room—like with blocking, crossing, sitting on furniture, handling props. Their avatars appear as projections on the set and chime when they enter the chat then go dark when they sign off. But the words the characters are keyboarding to one another and the screens they are presumably staring at are nowhere in evidence.

It doesn’t help that all this faux-chatroom interactivity takes place on a set (designed by Dan Conway with lighting by Michael Giannitti) that features prominently a claw-foot porcelain bathtub and a staircase to nowhere—neither of which functions in the play till the final few moments; till then they’re dimly lit enigmatic distractions. So it’s as if these ostensibly anonymous chats not only take place disconcertingly in a naturalistic theatrical environment; they seem on the set for some other play altogether. The upshot of this twice-removed staging is a barrier to connection with the characters, whose idiosyncratic stories of addiction and recovery, though passably interesting, never catch hold emotionally.

Things pick up when the two worlds collide. One character from the chatroom, “Haikumom,” is revealed to be Odessa, Elliot’s birth mother. Odessa abandoned Elliot as a boy and a let a younger sister die of dehydration (neglecting to give the child, as a pediatrician had instructed, “water by the spoonful”). Odessa thereby earned Elliot’s lifelong enraged resentment, and her appearance in real time real life prompts him to sob that his good mother had died instead of her.

Trouble is, the migration from chatroom to living room of Odessa (the character as written, played wonderfully by Fernandez-Coffey) has emotional resonance only to the extent that it occasions deeper understanding of the uncommonly crafted character  Elliot. His pain, humor, backbone, and affection anchor the text. Soria dives into the role and rides it like a cresting wave.