Addiction binds together the disparate characters of Quiara Alegria Hudes’s “Water by the Spoonful,” but an even more tenacious adversary has a hold on them: shame, of a kind that simmers and festers and disturbs dreams and stokes a rage that its bearers find almost impossible to quell.
The play, receiving its regional premiere at Studio Theatre, has the scope that draws the attention of prize givers, and indeed, “Water by the Spoonful” was duly honored, winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s a sensitively wrought piece, with an ambitious range of concerns and some interesting observations about the families we’re born into and the ones we create in a modern age, in therapeutic situations, and even online.
And yet, the play — even in as polished a rendering as the one to which we’re treated at Studio by director KJ Sanchez — comes across rather flatly, as something to be admired rather than embraced. Maybe the subject matter is simply too much in the air, in the news, in TV drama, for the play to achieve a novel urgency. In any event, in its effort to diagnose the holes in its characters’ hearts, “Water by the Spoonful” ends up feeling a bit clinical itself.
The play is the second installment of a trilogy about one of its characters, Elliot Ortiz, an ex-Marine whose service to his country in Iraq was covered in “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” well handled by Gala Hispanic Theatre in an austere 2007 production. (The third work in the cycle, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” is now running at Second Stage Theatre in New York.) If “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” identified the enduring commitment of Elliot’s family to the nation, “Water by the Spoonful” narrows the focus to the pernicious influences that are eating at Elliot (Arturo Soria) — an aspiring actor working as a Subway counterman — and are tearing his family apart.
Principally, it is the crack addiction of his mother Odessa (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) that has estranged and embittered Elliot; the play’s title is derived from a long-ago incident involving her, Elliot and his sister that ended in tragedy. Odessa has since gotten off drugs — making peace with the past is a recurring theme of the play — and has become the administrator of a chat room for crack addicts. Online she is the stable maternal figure for a disparate group of hyper-caustic regulars she knows only by their user names: Chutes&Ladders (Vincent J. Brown); Orangutan (Amy Kim Waschke) and the newest member, Fountainhead (Tim Getman).
But recovery has not been possible for her relationship with Elliot, who, by the way, is haunted by an Iraqi ghost (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), demanding in Arabic that his passport be given back to him — a plea with perhaps a private meaning for Elliot.
On Dan Conway’s bedraggled-looking set, with its pocked walls and dingy furniture, Hudes’s anger-fueled mosaic is assembled, piece by piece. Elliot’s cousin Yazmin (Gisela Chipe), an adjunct professor and the play’s most even-tempered soul, is featured in a scene in which she is lecturing on jazz legend John Coltrane and an appreciation of musical dissonance, how to grasp it as distinct from noise.
The play, too, in documenting the characters’ various anguishes and insecurities, wants us to see all the permutations of dissonance, to grasp that all the cries and aggressive outbursts are, like the Iraqi ghost’s, a reaching out for understanding. The scenes with the chat-room addicts alternate with Elliot’s, until the worlds of his mother collide, and she’s forced to confront in the here and now both Elliot’s unquenchable fury and the horrible, permanent stain of her past neglect.
Sanchez knows how to conduct all the nervous energy generated by the actors: the rhythms of the chat-room scenes are clearly, finely maintained, especially after the logging-on begins of Getman’s Fountainhead, a Porsche-driving executive who’s cut down to size by Brown and Waschke’s blunt-force characters. Fernandez-Coffey looks too young to play Elliot’s mother, but there’s a realistic evocation in her eyes of the hardness of Odessa’s lot. A different variety of hardness informs Soria’s altogether believably unforgiving turn as Elliot. The actor adroitly bottles Elliot’s contempt, in a hurt that he spits back at Odessa as unrelieved spite. Reconciliation is not a pivot of which this relationship seems capable.
I would love to say that all these heated elements are brought to a satisfying boil, but the events of the play never escape a sense of being laid out before us, as if for an academic postmortem. Perhaps “Water” has too many items on its agenda for its emotional impact to be measured in anything but spoonfuls.
By Quiara Alegria Hudes. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Set, Dan Conway; lighting, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Ivania Stack; sound, Christopher Baine; percussion, Richard Livingston Huntley. About 2 hours. Tickets, $39-$75. Through April 13 at Studio Theatre, 1510 14th St. NW. Visit www.studiotheatre.org or call 202-332-3300.