I do not particularly care for theatre as an art form (its tendency toward hyperbole and excessive talking reminds me of myself). In fact, I know next to nothing about theatre (please continue reading this review, though, because I am, according to my many friends, quite charming and witty). But “Water by the Spoonful,” which runs through Nov. 5, is just the type of play us drama philistines can appreciate.
The play begins with two apparently divergent storylines. The first concerns Elliot Ortiz, a veteran of the Iraq War still purpled by the bruises of memory and violence. He struggles with prescription pill addiction, his mother’s illness and a phantom dressed in Middle Eastern garb. This ghost haunts him by repeating the same enigmatic Arabic phrase over and over again, the significance of which is never revealed. Elliot is steadied only by his cousin, Yazmin, a music professor who has a clear head on her shoulders and her feet firmly planted on the ground.
The second storyline revolves around an online forum for recovering crack addicts, run by the ostensibly nurturing and devoted “Haikumom.” She communicates digitally with Orangutan, a young woman and recovering addict who recently moved to Japan, and Chutes&Ladders, a middle-aged man sober for a decade and working a vapid job at the IRS. Together, they form a sort of cyber womb, a tiny community of the fallen and the struggling. They are joined, eventually, by Fountainhead. Well-meaning but vain and myopic, Fountainhead personifies the successful white-collar addict, sharply dressed by day and searching the carpet for crystals by night. Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders ridicule him as out of touch, not really a crackhead, to the consternation of Haikumom.
In the second half of the play, these two storylines converge in a reversal, a twist both anticipated (the plots had to come together at some point, right?) and unexpected (some characters are not as, ahem, maternal as I thought they were). Similarly, the conclusion is fairly predictable, with a few unforeseen complications and a mix of melancholy and (perhaps misplaced) hope.
I would like to judge the play on two separate planes. The first regards the play’s Yalies, and the second concerns the play’s source text, written by Quiara Alegría Hudes ’99.
Not a single poor, or even mediocre, actor performs in “Water by the Spoonful.” Gilberto Saenz ’19 portrays Elliot Ortiz brilliantly. His eyes cloud with the dolorous specter of pain or else betray rivulets of seemingly sincere tears. Even during transitions between scenes, he stays in character and limps about the dark set. He yells or cries in nearly every scene, which gets a bit obnoxious around the two-hour mark, but this indicates no fault in his skills as a thespian. Rather, it is an outgrowth of the character he embodies, a veteran whose mercurial mental state and emotional precariousness are, at times, tiresome.
The play itself is a firebomb of emotion, with scenes exploding in shouting and cursing more befitting a Trump rally than the hallowed, highbrow realm of theatre. But as a vulgarian myself, I appreciated this. Natural emotion bubbling and erupting and the unfiltered language that accompanies it — these complement the play’s somber subject matter and reveal that the characters, frustrated, cannot express themselves in any other manner.
One of the play’s most compelling scenes involves Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders excoriating Fountainhead for his refusal to acknowledge his addiction. They circle him; Chutes&Ladders rolls in his office chair from the semi-darkness of the stage’s flanks to the oval of light encompassing Fountainhead. In this juxtaposition of physical intimacy and digital alienation, they jeer and taunt the gray-headed executive. Finally, he detonates, screaming, “I’m a fucking crackhead!” The entailing silence fills with catharsis, and the somewhat-dispelled anxieties of the character meld with those of the audience.
To pull off such sustained emotional intensity requires exemplary acting. And, as mentioned above, “Water by the Spoonful” has this in buckets. Maria Wu ’17 portrays all the complexities of her character Orangutan: ebullient, hopeful, brave, then sarcastic, dejected and, above all, still addicted. Sofia Campoamor ’19 as Haikumom accomplishes a masterful Jekyll and Hyde, shifting from motherly to contemptible to pitiful, sometimes within a single scene. Richard Hicks ’18 (Fountainhead) and Branson Rideaux ’20 (Chutes&Ladders) also give laudable performances, and it is obvious that director Abbey Burgess ’19 and producer Alec Mukamal ’18 have labored, along with their actors, for excellence.
The atmosphere of the play, too, is appropriate, thanks to the production staff’s competence. Aurally, each scene is a whirlwind, the chaotic cacophony of saxophone meshing with the ominous beats of helicopter blades. Thanks to this production, then, the play functions as a whole and complete artwork.
Fair criticism of “Water by the Spoonful” only rests with the source text, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama (I was regrettably not consulted on this selection). Its dialogue occasionally stoops to the baroque and the sentimental. It characters are not terribly original and are only brought to life by the force of the thespians’ acting. How many stories have we read about war veterans struggling with their traumas? It is ground thoroughly tread, and the text contributes no fresh or profound insights to this subject.
Between scenes, John Coltrane’s discordant “Ascension” echoes throughout the theatre. It is a fitting choice for this cast. They wrench and squeeze, from a flawed text, a world of undeniable emotion. The humanity of the characters fleshes out beyond the cardboard caricatures Quiara Alegría Hudes created. To get to know them, if only for two hours, is transcendent.