Quiara Alegria Hudes’s Pulitzer-winning drama, Water by the Spoonful (now playing at Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theatre through February 10), is about the wrong character, of the wrong ethnicity, talking about the wrong issues, in the wrong play. Hudes challenges the assumptions of everyone from Aristotle to Chekhov, Broadway producers to instructors of playwriting and breaks standardized rules regarding the fourth wall and overlapping dialogue. She does this by invoking the spirit of John Coltrane and the dissonance of his music, but her thorough, full-bodied, complete play is all hers. It’s a progression the American theatre has needed, even if her visions of drug addicts aren't blurred or intense enough to equate with those of O’Neill or Williams or Gelber. Hudes isn’t angry enough, oppressed enough, or disturbing enough, to make us think that she isn’t a mainstream, commercial writer who still has something to learn about the ravaged. Nevertheless, she is not superficial.
The structure of the play, which so interests her, begins as that of a rather routine two-hander, whose story doesn’t seem especially fresh. It isn’t new to watch the course of events that lead up to spreading the ashes of a deceased loved one—plays by Terrence McNally and Lanford Wilson, among others, have done that. Water by the Spoonful, expands and develops, though, and it refracts—it put me more in mind of looking at the facets of a jewel. The principle lines we follow are those of a loser, a Hispanic mami, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas)—and we watch her as she crashes into her online friends and estranged family. Yet, the babysitter who became an addict is, privately, trying to make a difference, as well as save her soul—and, toward the end of the drama, she plays a powerful, wordless scene, which hauntingly gives the work its title.
One criticism of Water by the Spoonful, might be that Hudes’s “good girl” Yaz (Zabtyna Guevara)—who comes off as a stand-in for the playwright and becomes the center for the onstage family—doesn’t deserve the illustrious company of the sinners who surround her. A.A. would probably ask the music professor to sit outside. However, Sue Jean Kim would be welcomed, playing an American addict of Japanese descent who lives in Japan. She spreads the muck of life over herself in the naked awareness of the damned that Stanislavskians will relish. Hudes is too calculated a playwright to give the others quite as much room; her lines are far too crisp and clean (but satisfying performances are given by the entire cast). She can also craft good sound-bytes, for example: “Life is short. You can only live in mediocrity so long” or, for our educators: “What does adjunct even mean?”). Sometimes, she can seem one step away from stereotype—until she allows the Iraq war vet Elliot (Armando Riesco) to play nasty on the computer, we’re watching what seems to be a docile, kind-hearthearted, if misguided, mostly unelectric bunch. Yet, like with her play Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Hudes, like David Hare, David Margulies, Rajiv Joseph, among others, is disallowing our Mideast wars to slip into societal amnesia. Besides the interest in structure, this is another reason to see her work. It’s as close as our slick Broadway playwrights can get to exposing the wounds of our society, so credit must be given for what can be accomplished in such a hostile environment. Hudes confronts the flashbacks, the ambivalence, and the drug use of Iraq: Commercially, this should have spelled disaster.
As the writer Jim Marrs has discussed, there are plenty of reasons for soldiers to want drugs after America’s enduring conflicts. The issues not only involve injury, but PTSD, where more suicides (349) took place in 2012 than combat deaths (admittedly the wars are ending). Others include the relative ease of gaining and trading drugs, and the lack of support here at home—quite different from the parades and gratitude, which welcomed those after WWII. Elliot, himself, only finds a low-wage job in a sandwich shop; others, according to Marrs, “end up on the street, are vilified, or are thrown into prison.”
If it takes a while for the work to find white heat, Hudes does keep us guessing—and there may be a moment when you feel a chilliness, her incomprehension at what people can become, about what they might turn into. After so many plays about the sufferings of worthiness, the superiority of the all-knowing artist, the emptiness of upward mobility, or the need to steal the spotlight, theatregoers might actually appreciate the fact that contemporary anti-heroes are re-emerging. Hudes stops short of making Water by the Spoonful a tragedy, but you’ll be glad that she’s done just about everything else . . . wrong.
With Frankie Faison, Bill Heck, and Ryan Shams.
Directed by Davis McCallum.
Set Design: Neil Patel.
Press: The Hartman Group.
For further information, please visit: http://www.2st.com/plays/season/199/
© 2013 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.