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Water by the Spoonful
By Elyse Sommer
Though populated by a variety of characters with plenty of story telling to do, the central figure is again Elliot, the young Iraq veteran of the trilogy's first play, Ellliot a Soldier's Fugue which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. . . .Spoonful, did win the Pulitzer this time around, beating out Sons of the Prophet and Other Desert Cities.
Elliot's (Armando Riesco) career as a Marine left him with a limp and at sea about his life. . . .Spoonful finds him back in the part of Philadelphia that accounted for his going off to war as a means of escape. He's in a dead-end job at a Subways and caring for his beloved aunt Ginny who's dying of cancer. His strongest support system is the never seen aunt's daughter, his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara).
Yaz, who's had a privileged private school education is a first year adjunct professor of music. Unlike the play's anger, anxiety driven and drug addicted other characters, she's on her way to knowing who she's going to be and what kind of life she's going to have. However, as Ms. Hudes has been true to her family ties by using her talents to tell their stories, so Yaz has not cut off the ties that bind her to her cousin and family traditions. .
The opening scene between Elliot and Yaz is quite straightforward, establishing their situation and relationship with frequently funny dialogue. Things move forward from there in a more non-linear direction that makes it more than a little challenging to be clear about what's going on,. . . who's who, where and why.
The Elliot-Yaz plot revolves around their efforts to arrange for a proper funeral for the beloved Ginny. The stories of the other characters (and this is very much a group portrait) unfold through conversations and monologues as they log onto a website called recovertogether.com.
Since these conversations and monologues don't involve the computer screens with people typing rather than talking, that one associates with internet chat rooms, it takes a bit to catch on to the dialogue's rhythms and the specifics of this set-up and how it brings together these people in various locations and stages of recovery. Think of it as a variation of the bar where Eugene O'Neill's losers gather in The Iceman Cometh. But Hudes, aware of too many depressing stories about drug addicted Latinos, has steered her play to a more hopeful ending. That includes allowing Elliot to let go of what haunts him about his Iraq experience and relationship with his mother and take a giant step into a new life (its specifics hinting at a Hollywood setting for the soon to be produced final play in the trilogy.
Since Haikumom, the website's founder, and moderator, happens to be Elliot's mother Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), it's clear that there is a connection between everyone and everything. Sure enough, by the time the first act ends what initially seems like two disparate plot lines not only brings the addiction stories closer to being recovery stories but clarifies how they parallel each other thematically. One represents the family ties established by birth that continue to bind us. The other, is the family we create for ourselves to make survival in an impoerfect world possible . Even the mystery of the title reveals its meaning and explains Elliot's issues with his mother, and her reason for becoming a more able to nurture mother .
Despite the Pulitzer Prize imprimatur that has brought Water by the Spoonful to one of New York's most prestigious Off-Broadway theaters, Second Stage, its edgy if somewhat elusive structure is not likely to make this a crowd pleaser with tourists and people buying tickets to current Pulitzer revivals like Picnic and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The the individual stories occasionally tend to take turns that are too pat an unsurprising. The play overall relies too much on the internet presentation for creating a new-new-thing feeling.
My own preferred choice among this year's Pulitzer contenders would have been the more consistently fresh and moving Son of the Prophet,. That said, director Davis McCallum' has staged it with impressive fluidity to ease the viewer through the spots that are a bit slow and likely to confuse.
The production's seven actors all bring their characters to vivid life, The most moving performances are delivered by Colón-Zayas as Odessa i Armando Riesco as Elliot and Bill Heck as the most in denial chat room visitor.
Set designer Neil Patel has created a flexible and most effective scenic design to serve the play's multiple locations and moods. A tiled rear wall of generously sized tiles opens up to accommodate the appearance and disappearance of furniture and also as a backdrop for Aaron Rhyne's dynamic projections. Not to give anything away, the final scene is a knockout! Lighting, sound and costume design work is also top notch.
Perhaps when The Happiest Song Plays Last , the final play in this trilogy has premieres at the Goodman Theater in Chicago in April, someone will mount a marathon of the complete cycle. And since Ms. Hudes is only 32 perhaps she'll next bear witness to the stories of the Jewish half of her family, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. On the other hand, she may just take time out to write the libretto for another musical, as she did for In the Heights..
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