Although it doesn’t fully achieve its lofty aspirations, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Water By the Spoonful” makes an urgent plea for the human connections that people need to survive in a soulless age of alienation. An extension of the dramatic arc begun in “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue” (itself a Pulitzer finalist), play follows the efforts of a wounded vet to return to his old life, and so long as he stays in focus, the play asserts its strength. What gets out of hand are the secondary life stories that, while not unworthy, elbow Elliot off center stage.
Armando Riesco originated the role of Elliot in “A Soldier’s Fugue” then played him again in the original production of “Water By the Spoonful” at Hartford Stage, and as far as this reviewer is concerned, this powerfully committed actor can play him until hell freezes over because the performance he gives is that intense.
Elliot is doing a drug or two, haunted as he is by the ghosts he brought back with him from Iraq. But his efforts to keep his head together are blown when the beloved aunt who raised him dies. His sympathetic cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara, quite nice) is supportive, and there’s much tenderness and warmth in the two-hander scenes between the cousins.
The person Elliot can’t bring himself to face when he returns to his Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia is his mother, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), whose appalling mistreatment of her children when she was a young crack addict seems to have made a psychic cripple of Elliot. Hudes has taken great care with her portrait of this unhappy woman and Colon-Zayas obliges with a most understanding performance.
The character of Odessa is the linchpin that keeps — or almost keeps — the play’s split-focus structure from flying apart. Using the tag of “Haikumom,” Odessa established and maintains an Internet chat room for recovering crack cocaine addicts like herself.
The website only exists in cyberspace, but that doesn’t stop Neil Patel (set) and Aaron Rhyne (projections) from designing a gorgeous visual home page for it. Four participants in this sorry collection of misfits keep to their isolated spaces and never speak to one another directly, but the crazy quilt of colorful icons that pulse and glow on the back wall gives an indication of how many other lost souls are attracted to the site.
The ones Hudes has chosen to represent are all, to some degree, interesting, and all are well-cast by helmer Davis McCallum, who has also done a fine job of respecting their integrity as individual characters.
Bill Heck makes a sad case of Fountainhead, the Philadelphia blueblood who has lost everything, including his pride, to drugs. Sue Jean Kim brings a great deal of invention to Orangutan, a young and adorably manic Japanese-American girl trying to find the courage to look up her birth parents in Tokyo. Broadway veteran Frankie Faison illuminates the sweet soul of Chutes and Ladders, a middle-aged desk jockey who befriends the flaky Orangutan.
While their stories are interesting, these character sketches aren’t exactly polished portrait studies. More to the point, they have no connection to Elliot, except through Odessa.
As representatives of the vast world of lost and lonely souls who haunt the chat rooms, Odessa’s online friends certainly fit into Hudes’ dramatic themes of social isolation and the need for compassionate human connections. But the playwright’s disinterest in establishing one last, deep connection — by integrating their life stories with the larger drama of Elliot and his mother — keeps her play from really knocking us out.