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Water by the Spoonful — Arden Theatre

WaterSpoon Interior “Water by the Spoonful” is the middle play of a trilogy in which Quiara Alegría Hudes chronicles the life of Elliot Ortiz, a puertoriquen͂o with great teeth and a leg wound he received at age 18 while fighting in Iraq. Since his return to the North Philadelphia barrio that is his home, the young veteran has struggled to get a foothold  on a stable, sustaining adult life. In spite of appearing in a popular Colgate ad that plays on Spanish-language television stations, Elliot exists modestly on the living he earns making sandwiches at a Subway shop, a situation that stirs his discontent and renders him restless and unhappy.

       Since Elliot is the focal subject of Hudes’s plays, you’d think he’d be the most sympathetic character, the one you would root for to overcome demons, including the shadow of a demanding Iraqi man who haunts both his dreams and waking moments, and to make headway towards his goal to be an actor and independent being. In “Water by the Spoonful,” as performed at the Arden Theatre in a production directed by Lucie Tiberghien, the opposite is true. Elliot comes off as the least likeable, least sympathetic figure in the play. As written by Hudes and played in keeping with her script by Armando Batista, Elliot is not fully formed as an individual. He has a juvenile side that is mean and unattractive, and it informs his personality to the point that Batista, for all of his good looks and attempts at charm, cannot make Elliot a character that is worthy of support or regard.

        More than once, Elliot does or says things that are unnecessarily cruel. In his childish way, he believes he is exacting justice and repaying a bad turn in kind, but the way his behavior registers in “Water by the Spoonful,” the acts he thinks are fitting and proper play as being spiteful and retributive, hurt for the sake of hurt, revenge for the sake of revenge. Hudes may have intended this negative cast for Elliot. She may even argue that the traits and actions she assigned him are warranted and should be endorsed by the audience. Argue as she might, the effect of “Water by the Spoonful’s script is to make Elliot seem small and ugly, as someone too insensitive and too selfish to recognize a situation in its entirety and to act as a “mensch” instead of an emotional blackmailer and a bully. Hudes may have meant for the act that prompts these comments to be a youthful mistake, an instance where deep-seated feelings cloud common sense, but if so, she needed to do more foreshadowing of all that might be going through Elliot’s mind and prepare differently for a big confrontation scene. My hunch is Hudes expects her audience to fall on Elliot’s side because she has his more worldly cousin, Yazmin, a character who grounds Elliot and serves as the raissoneur in “Water  by the Spoonful,” agree with him and even say something that refuels Elliot’s spiteful resolve at the critical moment when it looks as if he is wavering about his dastardly intentions and about to change his mind.

       So, “Water by the Spoonful” suffers from having a focal character that is not laudable, and an allegedly sensible character that has a confusing lapse of the humanity and reason she represents.

        These are not the sloppy play’s only problems.

        The premise that sets up the scene that show’s Elliot’s mean, unforgiving streak is built on flimsy, if not non-existant logic. Perhaps it is a Latino custom that everyone in a family is committed to contribute something towards the flowers purchased for a relative’s funeral, but this is not a common practice in the world at large. In “Water by the Spoonful,” Elliot decides the aunt who raised him, Ginny, a remarkable woman who succumbs to cancer in the early scenes of Hudes’s play, should have a floral display that looked like her North Philadelphia garden. The flowers cost more than he or Yazmin can afford, but he proceeds to order them, an act the audience would want and goes along with. All of a sudden, he tracks down his birth mother, his aunt’s sister, and, based on the Latino custom Hudes threw in to justify Elliot’s insistence, commands this penurious woman to add to the fund for the expensive flowers. His badgering is relentless and petulant. He brings up all kinds of horrors from his early childhood, incidents that are condemning and put the mother, Odessa,  in a bad light she no doubt deserved at one time. What Elliot doesn’t glean, doesn’t see through his litany of accusation, conviction, and anger is that the woman before him is far transformed from the mother who was guilty of neglect and putting her addictions above the care of her children. Hudes makes a case for Elliot’s point of view. As I’ve hinted, I think in the playwright’s mind, Elliot’s outlook prevails. But the scene belies an affection the audience has developed for Odessa who has appeared in previous segments as Haikumom, the founder and administrator of a chat site for crack addicts. A confrontation between Elliot and Odessa may be dramatically imperative, a critically necessary element of “Water by the Spoonful,” but the way Hudes brings it about is slapdash, convenient instead of logical. It is the sign of a young playwright, and a young person, who expects her audience to buy any idea she wants to sell on her terms. “Water by the Spoonful” is full of such signs.

       Besides the regard the audience has established for Haikumom/Odessa, played with fragile grace by Karina Arroyave, the time, place, and result of Elliot’s onslaught is all wrong. Elliot has sound reasons for resenting his mother. Real events, chocked with dire consequences, affected his early life. Odessa’s addiction cost Elliot a sister and would have made him a ward of the court, a possible foster child, except for his Aunt Ginny’s intervention. You can understand his pain and craving for redress. But that doesn’t account for what happens in the long run because Hudes undercuts Elliot’s arguments by establishing the change in Odessa so clearly, by cavalierly staging Elliot’s showdown with his Mom in a public place (the Silk City Diner), by using the laughable gambit of Odessa’s obligation to contribute to the flowers as a catalyst, and by letting Elliot go ahead and blindly exact his pound of flesh in way that seems so pointlessly destructive and wrong.

       Sloppy. Bad. Immature. Hudes creates a dramatic effect but at the expense of the dignity of her lead character and our respect for him.

       I was so intent, and intense, about one passage in “Water by the Spoonful” that truly irked me and brought to light several elements I didn’t like about the play, I fear I put the cart before the horse. I have dealt with “Water’s” second act before discussing the first.

        The inherent problems with “Water by the Spoonful” start at the beginning.

         In the first act, you feel as if you’re watching two separate and distinct works, one concentrating on Elliot coping with the death of the aunt he regarded as his mother and whom he called Mom, the other about four people who regularly log in to a chat room for crack addicts and have become friends. Well, three of them have. The fourth is a newcomer and a bit of an outsider.

       Scenes volley between the two plays. Unless you’ve read the program and noticed Haikumom’s given name, or saw the first play in Hudes’s trilogy, “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” which was produced in 2010 at the Walnut, you may not see the connection between “Water’s” twin narratives. “Water by the Spoonful” does not make it immediately apparent, even though you know Haikumom is Latina and based in Philadelphia.

        Sequences involving Elliot and his almost constant companion, Yazmin, a composer, musician, and adjunct professor of music at Swarthmore, go on listlessly. You feel for the cousins’ loss of their aunt, and Elliot’s loss of the woman who nurtured him, but their routines they follow on the day depicted don’t arouse much curiosity or excitement. They expose a lot about the Ortiz family but do not promise drama. Even the specter of the Iraqi who stalks Elliot has little effect, especially when you learn early on what the Iraqi is saying and what he wants.

       The scenes with the characters from the chat room are more engaging. Haikumom and her correspondents with the handles Chutes and Ladders, Orangutan, and Fountainhead are more vividly drawn, more interesting, and more informative. You learn a lot about addiction and the fellowship of addicts. The folks in the chat room also come across as more human and more detailed than Elliot. The question in the first act, answered at the end of it, is how the chat room scenes relate to the play involving Elliot and Yazmin.

       Even among the chat room characters, rancor prevails. With less provocation than Elliot has to lash into Odessa in Act Two, Chutes and Ladders dogs and taunts Fountainhead, whose Ayn Rand-inspired handle may spur his ire, in Act One. It is apparent what we’re seeing is class warfare in the guise of a call for raw honesty. But the scenes play uglier than they could. Once again, I think audience sympathy goes with character against whom Hudes seems to side, and what is meant to be dramatic turns out to be gratuitous and irritating.

        Other than Chutes’s baiting of Fountainhead, the four chat room participants are doing more about fighting their devils than Elliot is. He seems to be waiting for something, possibly Yazmin, to settle something for him, instead of taking action on his own.

         Among the reasons the chat room scenes are satisfying are the performances of Arroyave, Bi Jean Ngo, Brian Anthony Wilson, and Kevin Bergen as its denizens.(Latino, Asian, black, and white, a bomber crew combination!)

        Arroyave is all heart as the mother figure who keeps everyone behaving and who begins each online day with a haiku she writes to celebrate and encourage another day of sobriety. Arroyave keeps her face in a weak position as someone who had to conquer years of drug use might. The true affection she expresses for all in her fold, including the abused Fountainhead, is warming and draws you to Haikumom. Arroyave radiates wisdom and concern.

      Bi Jean Ngo expresses the enegry, nerve, and ambivalence of Orangutan, a woman who fights her addiction by moving to Japan, the country in which she was born and lived in for eight days before being adopted by Americans who took her to Maine. Brian Anthony Wilson is a teddy bear and another voice of reason making it all the more upsetting when Chutes and Ladders attacks Fountainhead, especially after establishing the emotional steadiness Wilson has made us believe Chutes exudes.  Kevin Bergen is all articulate WASP propriety as Fountainhead, who Chutes is right to goad into a confession of addiction, but who scores his own points as being someone who has more to lose than the others from his folly with drugs.

      A telling scene in the first act depicts Yazmin teaching her Swarthmore class. Her lesson is on dissonance, sounds that don’t mesh harmoniously but create music that suggests a musically anarchic meaning and message of its own while retaining the possibility of entertaining as grandly.

       Looking at “Water by the Spoonful” from the perspective of dissonance, I can see more of what Hudes might want to create. The Ortiz family, as spoken of by Elliot and Yazmin, certainly illustrate a form of dissonance. Perhaps Hudes coarsened Elliot, and wrote scenes that make him appear more puerile and brutish than a hero usually would, to create an effect that might be sorted out in part three of the trilogy, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” due for production by New York’s Second Stage starting on February 11. Perhaps the first act of “Water by the Spoonful,” the one play in the trilogy that has no musical reference in its title, is meant to jar and be theatrically grating.

      Even giving Hudes that benefit of a doubt, Tiberghien’s production of “Water by the Spoonful” did not convey dissonance as much as discord. It does not weave the two threads of Act One well or compellingly, and it keeps Elliot as the least attractive, least likeable character on the stage. Act One seems confusing and boring. If dissonance is the clue, then Tiberghien needs to serve Hudes better with a defter, more unifying touch. She needs to make the two seemingly separate stories collide and skim off of each other instead of presenting them as if they’re different entities in parallel ether. Act Two has more substance and more dramatic passages, but Tiberghien never finds the heart in Hudes’s piece. Even scenes that should touch a chord of warmth fail to do so, an being exception one sequence in which Fountainhead lovingly bathes Haikumom/Odessa, who is fighting to get well and continue her chatting after a crisis.

       Via its title, what has a literal in addition to a figurative meaning, “Water by the Spoonful” is about people who live life gradually, one day at a time, one experience at a time. Each of its characters, even Yazmin, is on a journey to conquer obstacles and obsessions that prevent him or her from living at his or her freest and fullest. All strive to make progress in small, regular doses. This theme comes through, but in Tiberghien’s cold, disjointed production at the Arden, it’s difficult to watch. Not because it’s painful or that empathy for the characters becomes too much, but because Tiberghien’s institutional approach to the play, on Alexis Distler’s institutional set, a fine piece of architecture but drab for a play, makes you take the play in a matter-of-fact style that levels any depth in Hudes’s perception and shows the flaws in the playwright’s young, limited perspective.

      Armando Batista does everything Hudes’s script and Tiberghien’s direction asks of him. Although you come not to be fond of Elliot, Batista is consistent and honest in the role. He portrays Elliot with all of his rancor and spite showing. He can spout sarcasm humorously but without the charm Maia DeSanti gives her lines as Yazmin. As Elliot must, Batista has beautiful teeth and a killer smile. The handsome actor is a perfect leading man type. He plays the lead in “Water by the Spoonful” with strength. It is not Batista’s fault that Elliot turns out to be such a disappointment as a human being.

     Maia DeSanti, dressed in just the right outfits by Alison Roberts, brings out the modern, educated air of Yazmin, whose intellectual gifts were discovered early and who was taken from the barrio to study at private schools. DeSanti exudes sophistication and common sense one can trust. That’s why it’s so surprising her character, Yazmin, goes along with Elliot in certain acts to punish Odessa.

     The most complete and touching performance in “Water by the Spoonful” is Karina Arroyave’s as Haikumom and Odessa. Perky and upbeat Haikumon is truly a cheerleader and savior for many who are working desperately to shake their dependence on crack. Arroyave endows Haikumom with the sweetness and humor to sustain her through that work, work of a kind the sainted Aunt Ginny, in Elliot and Yazmin’s minds, undertook to a different group in a different way. The vulnerability Arroyave displays as Odessa is heartbreaking. If tears are shed in “Water by the Spoonful,” it’s for this woman who remains so unknown, unrecognized, and unappreciated by the people closest to her while others distances away depend on her for their ongoing well-being. Arroyave’s gentle portrayal wrings those tears. Hers is splendid work amid a cluster of excellent performances.

      “Water by the Spoonful” runs through Sunday, March 16 at the Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street (2nd and Church), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesday, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 8  p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m.Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No Wednesday matinees are scheduled for Feb. 19 or 26. No 7 p.m. Sunday shows are set for Feb. 6. Feb. 16, March 9, or March 16. Tickets range from$48 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-922-1122 or going online to www.ardentheatre.org.

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