Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Water by the Spoonful: What is Family

Whenever any writer talks about a sofa covered in plastic, I am immediately transported to my grandmother's house--with a dirt cellar, an uncomfortable wedding portrait mounted on the wall over the plastic covered sofa, and being force fed homemade pasta and cookies.  It's the type of cultural shorthand that I don't mind when handled well.  Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Quiara Alegría Hudes's Water by the Spoonful, makes reference to a plastic covered sofa and yet walks a delicate line through material that could easily fall into melodrama.  But she largely stays on the right side of the line, creating fragile poetry with an intersecting story between addicts in recovery and an immigrant family in dissolution. The play showcases some terrific performances even if the production at times is uneven.

Eddie, (Armando Riesco) a war vet and Subway sandwich employee, is taking care of his mother who is in failing health. He meets up with his jazz loving academic cousin, Yaz (Zabryna Guevara), who is going through a divorce.   In parallel, we meet HaikuMom (Liza Colon-Zayas) who runs an Internet forum for addicts. In this forum a Japanese adoptee, Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), an IRS employee, Chutes and Ladders (Frankie Faison), and a hotshot Internet entrepreneur, Fountainhead (Bill Heck), come together to give support, demand honesty, and ultimately forge strong bonds that extend beyond the bounds of the World Wide Web.

Voicing some interesting angles on class, race, ethnic communities in America and how addiction runs across race, class, and socioeconomic lines, Water by the Spoonful gives voice to vivid characters and what it means to be a family in America today.  I liked the sibling-like relationship between Eddie and Yaz and the difficult reality of one cousin moving on and the other staying behind--but the closeness between them was palpable, real and sincere. 

In the middle of the show several story lines connect up in a diner scene--which was near perfect--showing life as it is and not as it seems online.  The characters' lives are peeled back in that scene with expert care and a great deal is communicated with precision.  The rawness of the pain caused and the pain felt by the characters in that scene was well worth the price of admission. 

Maybe some other scenes felt overdone and overwrought because the diner scene worked so well for me. I found that some of the delicacy of the work was lost when it was followed up by moments that were staged in an obvious way.  I wish director Davis McCallum suggested rather than demonstrated.  I appreciate the difficulties of trying to create an online community on stage and the Windows 8 style projections tried valiantly to solve this challenging problem. But in the end maybe I would have liked to have just seen them as monologues or even progress from this stylized computer format to performed dialogue.  At some point the actors staring off into space and not making eye-contact with people bothered me. Especially when the theme of the work was about these connections.  The way people can come together when what binds them, in part, is the pain they have caused others.  Finding a way to make your life without causing yourself and others pain in the process.  But the voices of the addicts were honest and biting.  I believed their scenario despite the awkwardness of the staging.

However, I did not think Eddie's flashbacks to war worked.  Maybe because this is a trilogy there are tendrils of connections for those scenes to the other plays that give them more context but here I found again the literalness of wrestling with ghosts to be over the top.

For my quibbles, the performers were top notch.  Armando Riesco, who I have always noticed in the movies he's done (I don't know why but I liked his small role in Fever Pitch), brings a devastating honesty to Eddie and I wish I had seen the other two plays in the the trilogy where he performed the same role.  It was fantastic to see Sue Jean Kim in another role after her very good turn in Assistance (even if I did not like that play). Bill Heck plays a smaller role but he really grabbed my attention and so much more so than in the awful revival of Angels in America.  Here he shows bravado melting off his face and humility weighing on him with uncomfortable resonance.

It's a very moving play and even if I struggled with how some aspects were staged I was grateful to see it. 

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