There are essentially two plays on stage in Quiara Alegria Hudes’s new “Water by the Spoonful” which is receiving a lovingly detailed production from director Davis McCallum at Hartford Stage through November 13. They dance around each other for the most of the first, intertwine just before intermission and edge apart again by the end of the evening.
Each strand is quite beautiful in its own right, but Hudes has yet to find a way to make them complement each other for a cohesive whole. As a result, the evening’s storytelling can feel diffuse at times and certain plot holes remain gaping, with the play’s message of redemption, forgiveness, and connection getting lost in the shuffle until its final stunning image.
“Water by the Spoonful” was commissioned by Hartford Stage under an Aetna New Voices Fellowship and represents the second play in proposed trilogy by Hudes, best known for writing the book for the Tony Award winning musical “In the Heights.” The first part of the trilogy, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” has been produced to much acclaim and the character of Elliott resurfaces in this play as well, finding the injured Iraqi war vet and aspiring actor underemployed at Subway and dealing with the illness and impending death of his mother.
Armando Riesco, who had previously played Elliot in a production of the first play, is quite comfortable in his character’s shoes, perhaps a bit too much. He plays the young man so tightly wound and close to the vest that we don’t get a chance to glimpse the kid who went off to war, which in a way hinders our ability to fully sympathize with him, especially during some angry tirades later in the show. Riesco does convey Elliot’s frustration with his dead-end job as well as his ability to charmingly play to a camera in a toothpaste commercial. It is also hinted that his war experiences have contributed to the anger he ultimately expresses, but that connection is not made completely clear as well.
Most of Riesco’s scenes are played with the lovely and composed Zabryna Guevera, who plays Elliot’s cousin Yazmin, a music professor and aspiring composer who, in the midst of a bitter divorce, feels that something is missing from her life. Riesco and Guevara are quite believable as cousins, indicating through their ease and familiarity a lifetime of shared experiences and support, especially in scenes in which they plan Elliot’s mother’s funeral.
In counterpoint to this plot line, Hudes introduces us to four members of an internet chat room dedicated to those committed to fighting their cocaine addictions. Hudes wisely has the characters speak directly to each other and the group from their separate locations on the large thrust stage, rather than show them typing their responses or showing us their typed responses on a large screen. This pays off especially well in conveying the close relationship that has developed between three of them who are known to each other only by their screen names, the site monitor, a middle aged Hispanic woman known as Haikumom, the young Japanese-American student Orangutan, and the older African-American office worker, Chutes and Ladders. Their cynical, cautious attitude toward a visitor to their site, the egotistical, once wealthy businessman who’s named himself Fountainhead, provides the momentum of this plot line.
Not only are we wondering how–or even if–the two plot lines will interconnect, there seems to be a slight stylistic difference between the two. The chat room scenes seem more anchored and generally feel more heartfelt, especially the humor in the back and forth between the chatters. Elliot’s scenes seem more adrift making it harder for the audience to really connect with those characters.
But McCallum and set designer Neil Patel have left one clue as to some possible development. Of all the chatters, Haikumom’s apartment is the only one depicted in extensive detail. Her kitchen takes up the entire back area of the stage but is only used sparingly in the first act. When we finally learn of the connection between the two story lines at the curtain of Act One, there’s some disbelief because its obvious some key pieces of information have been withheld from the audience (which requires some awkward exposition at the top of the second act). Yet at the same time, the revelation does prompt our curiosity to fully understand the connection.
The second half of the evening does successfully build upon the foundation that Hudes has established in the first half. There is some interaction between the two plot threads but, more importantly, we get to understand the source of much of Elliot’s anger and rage. That story pales, however, beside the tragic redemption saga of Haikumom, whose real name we learn is Odessa, whose ultimate ability to impact people’s lives in many ways parallels the outstanding record of accomplishment for which Elliot’s mother is celebrated at her funeral.
I was, however, distressingly disturbed by the actions of two supposedly worldly and intelligent characters involving a computer terminal. That they could be so blind as to the cruelty of their action and its potential implications was so disheartening that I lost virtually all sympathy for either character, in part I think because Hudes’ writing portrayed the other characters so persuasively and sympathetically.
The actors playing the chat room regulars all deliver winning and ultimately touching performances, none more so than Liza Colon-Davis’s Odessa who has to demonstrate a precarious mother-like strength built upon a profound personal guilt. She turns out to be the fulcrum of the play, which takes its title from a horrific, unforgivable family incident back in her days as an addict. Teresa Avia Lim and the wonderfully reliable Ray Anthony Thomas are delightful, respectively, as the playfully energetic Orangutan and the gruff, stubborn Chutes and Ladders who, thanks in part to Odessa, learn to open themselves to a connection. Matthew Boston is also impressive in difficult role of Fountainhead, effectively communicating his character’s affinity for denial that counters a genuine desire to escape from his addiction.
Patel has used the Hartford Stages traps beneath the playing area to help to quickly change scenes or reset locations aided greatly by Russell Champa’s lighting design which remains specific and unique for each environment. Chloe Chapin’s costumes have the right contemporary feel that is appropriate for each character’s economic situation.
McCallum keeps the action moving and the plot relatively clear, thanks to some of Patel’s projections, which help to introduce us to the handles of the chat room crew. I did not completely understand the fight scene between Elliot and a character played by Demosthenese Chrysan, as the ghost of Elliot’s first kill in Iraq whose final utterance continues to haunt Elliot. It’s a bit hard to figure out what is supposedly happening, which undermines the irony of those fateful words.
At the end, though, McCallum does provides a touching triptych of images set respectively in Japan, Puerto Rico and Philadelphia that demonstrates some of the unexpected connections that have developed among several of the characters. It’s a compelling image that helps to crystallize what Hudes was attempting. I do applaud Hudes’ willingness to approach her story in such a manner and do wonder if seeing all three parts together, or at least being able to see the first part, would help fill in some of the blanks especially around Elliot’s character.
Tickets for “Water by the Spoonful” can be obtained by calling 860.527-5151 or by visiting the Hartford Stage website. Running through November 13, performances are weeknights (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday) at 7:30 p.m. and weekends (Friday and Saturday nights) at 8 p.m. Matinee performances are Sundays and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. Open captioned performances will take place on Sunday, November 6 at 2 and 7:30 p.m., with an audio-described performance on Saturday, November 12 at 2 p.m.