Review: The real, the virtual, the quest for connection in 'Water by the Spoonful'
Two elements of Quiara Alegría Hudes' remarkably crafted play "Water by the Spoonful" are striking and memorable. One is the way Hudes, one of America's richest new theatrical voices, brings two distinct plots into a collision that – only in afterthought -- seems destined by some natural force. The other is the two worlds in which those plots exist: one, face to face and with hearts that beat in real time and the second, a life that pulses on Planet Internet.
The Arden is giving Hudes' play an intense and smooth production – just right for the city in which it's set. Hudes grew up in West Philadelphia, and was in tenth grade when her first play was produced by one of the city's undersung and high-achieving institutions, Philadelphia Young Playwrights. (I mean really young, not young-adult.)
A few years back, she got a Tony nomination for her script for the very American story called "In the Heights," about the Latino community of Manhattan's Washington Heights. It was a hit on Broadway and last fall, the musical got a rousing ride from the Walnut Street Theatre. Hudes, now 36 and based in New York, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2012 for "Water by the Spoonful."
You could say Hudes has come full circle – now she sits on the board of Philadelphia Young Playwrights – except that the circle's far from closed. Her latest play, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," is now running Off-Broadway at Second Stage Theatre. It's the last in a trilogy of plays involving a Puerto Rican man, Elliot – the first play is "Elliot, A Solder's Fugue," about his return to Philadelphia after serving as a marine in Iraq; the second is "Water by the Spoonful," now at the Arden. The entire trilogy is anchored in Philadelphia.
Hudes writes about many things, but family, roots and the meaning of community – and how its definition is shattered and recreated by modern life – figure large in her work. In "Water by the Spoonful," she deals on one level with a community of recovering crack addicts who care deeply for one another in their Internet chat room. On another level, she deals with Elliot, a disappointed former soldier who works behind a Subway sandwich counter on the Main Line. Elliot is trying to care for the declining elder aunt who raised him carefully in North Philadelphia, and seeks moral support from his close cousin, an adjunct music-appreciation teacher at Swarthmore who has troubles of her own.
The way Hudes manipulates these characters, knotting them together in spirit if not always in person, is what makes the play resonate: Life's problems can have a strange common thread, no matter what they are, and Hudes is a crafty and accomplished seamstress. If "Water by the Spoonful" has a weak spot, it's the same burden many modern plays bear: too much going on in an attempt to cover all the bases. Not only is one character trying to sort out her crack addiction, she's facing adoption issues. Another addict is grateful for the days he's been clean, and miserable for the 10 years he's not seen his son.
Some of this isn't resolved – but the idea shines through that at some point, real relationships need more than a log-on. Lucie Tiberghien directs the Arden production with an eye to that message, beautifully rendered on Alexis Distler's simple set of platforms and gaps, in an appropriate shade of gray.
The cast is top-notch: Armando Batista as Elliot, Maia DeSanti as his cousin, and as the recovering addicts, Brian Anthony Wilson, Bi Jean Ngo, Kevin Bergen and Karina Arroyave. (Arroyave appears at least a decade too young for her part, but plays it perfectly.)
As you might imagine, there are ghosts in such travails. Here, their embodiment is Turhan Caylak, who haunts not just Elliot, but the play.
"Water by the Spoonful" runs through March 16 at the Arden Theatre Company, Second Street north of Market. 215-922-1122 or www.ardentheatre.org.