The Pulitzer Prize for drama has, of late, been a fairly predictable endorsement of the consensus opinion of New York’s theater tastemakers. Most of the winners over the past few years have been critically hailed works from Broadway or off-Broadway — both the good (Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined) and the not so good (David Lindsay-Abaire’s overrated Rabbit Hole, or the drably earnest musical Next to Normal). Last year, however, the Pulitzer committee threw one of its occasional curveballs, giving the award to a play the New York critics hadn’t even seen: Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, which had been produced only at the Hartford Stage in Connecticut. It’s the first time a play has snagged a Pulitzer without a New York staging since Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics in 2003.
It’s no accident that both come from Hispanic-American playwrights. Plays that reflect America’s ethnic diversity tend to get much more attention in regional theaters than in the New York hothouse — where you’re far more likely to see plays about upscale gay couples having relationship problems, or experimental reworkings of Ibsen. Now that Water by the Spoonful is having its belated Gotham premiere, at off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theater, we provincial New Yorkers can see what we missed. Quite it bit, it turns out.
Water by the Spoonful is the second in a projected trilogy, revolving around a Puerto Rican-American ex-Marine who is dealing with the traumas of a brief tour in Iraq. The first of the trilogy, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue (which had its New York premiere in 2006), dealt more directly with Elliot’s war experiences, which were interwoven with those of his father and grandfather in Vietnam and Korea. In the current play, his war wounds are merely background, and a framing device for the play. In the first scene, Elliot asks a college professor to translate an Arabic phrase for him. Why, or what the significance of the apparently innocent phrase is, does not become clear until much later, and then only partially. But the mystery hovers intriguingly over the play, propelling a narrative that blossoms into something more fragrant and enriching.
Half of the play’s scenes involve Elliot (Armando Riesko), who is working at a Subway sandwich shop in Philadelphia and facing, along with his divorced cousin Yaz (Zabrina Guevara), the sudden death of the aunt who raised him. In the other half, we follow a group of seemingly unrelated characters, who exchange messages in an online chat room for recovering crack addicts. There’s a link between the two strands, revealed halfway through. But in a thematic sense, they are all part of the same story: the search for human connection in a harsh and destabilizing world.
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Nearly everyone in the play is estranged, to one degree or another, from family: Elliot, whose aunt’s death reopens a bitter family wound; a young woman from the chat group who returns to Japan in search of her birth parents; the Yuppie crackhead who can’t tell his wife about his addiction. Yet one by one, improbably, they find acceptance, connection, even redemption. Some of the online “friends” meet face to face and — in contrast to a certain Notre Dame football player in the news lately — discover more, not less, than what they anticipated. Death forces both Elliot and his cousin to reach a new accommodation with the family.
Hudes’s writing is controlled and graceful. Each of the play’s 15 short scenes is perfectly balanced, the language both lyrical and lucid. Her voice is firmly grounded in her Puerto Rican heritage (she grew up in Philadelphia, of Puerto Rican and Jewish parents), yet there’s no community-organizer didacticism or sentimentality — something you can’t quite say about her book for the 2007 musical In the Heights. Most of all, the play, wonderfully directed by Davis McCallum, has a warm, welcoming spirit and a life-affirming message. People instinctively take care of each other; hitting bottom is the start of the trip back up. It inspired the Pulitzer folks, and it did the same for me.