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PerformanceOnstageReview: 'Water by the Spoonful' weaves a web of...

Review: ‘Water by the Spoonful’ weaves a web of addiction and Internet

Quiara Alegría Hudes' 2011 Pulitzer winner at SF Playhouse feels technologically dated—yet alarmingly still relevant

If art can serve as a time capsule of when it was created, COVID-era art has fallen behind considerably. Dramatic works addressing the pandemic are few and far between, and those that do—mostly on television—often refer to it in the past tense. That’s a shame because a lack of COVID stories means a lack representation in those stories. Especially considering how people with addictions are, unfortunately, prone to relapse, due to isolation from shut-ins and susceptible to health issues due to weakened immune systems.

Such things come to mind when seeing SF Playhouse’s new production of Water by the Spoonful (through April 23). The pre-pandemic play focuses on people in recovery keeping in touch online, something that became more necessary than ever these past two years. It also brings up issues of accountability and oversight, two things sorely lacking in our current COVID situation. (The Playhouse’s own COVID actions continue to attract scrutiny. As far as I observed, they still aren’t checking for boosters, and no effort was made to stop patrons from bringing food and drink in from the lobby, despite assurances. To their credit, however, they’re now using reduced “checkered” seating and an usher stalked the crowd in the darkness to make sure patrons were masked.)

Those two qualities—oversight and accountability—figure strongly into this 2012 Pulitzer-winner by Quiara Alegría Hudes, co-author of In the Heights. Recovering crack addict and web moderator HaikuMom (Lisa Ramirez) holds those she sponsors accountable on her Narcotics Anonymous message board: accountable for their language; accountable for their sobriety; and accountable for their behavior toward one another. The latter proves particularly important when long-timers Chutes&Ladders (Dorian Lockett) and Orangutan (Sango Tajima) seem determined to make life miserable for newcomer FountainHead (Ben Euphrat), a former tech CEO hiding his addiction behind his wealth.

Lara Maria and Xander DeAngeles in ‘Water by the Spoonful.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

While that’s going on, Iraq vet Elliot (Xander DeAngeles) needs the help of cousin Yazmin (Lara Maria) to settle the affairs the family matriarch, whom Elliot considers his mother. He’s particularly harsh about arrangements not living up to his standards, and he feels certain family members should be making greater contributions to the inevitable services. Yet for all his talk of wanting everyone to face things head-on, he’s frequently haunted by the face of an Iraqi man (Salim Razawi); haunted in a way that only comes from not living in denial.

Believe it or not, those two plots converge at the end of the first act, with the characters from both stories discovering the unusual ways in which they connect to one another.

Even without knowing the play premiered in 2011, its pre-pandemic pedigree is obvious in its portrayal of the Internet. It seems to exist in the pre-social media time of message boards and chat rooms. If not for the omnipresence of cellphones (though, none of them smartphones), the play could easily pass for the late-‘90s (when HaikuMom seems to have gotten her ancient PC) or the early-2000s. What’s more, occasional allusions to the operation of the website—which is never described in detail—show a tech ignorance that was not only dated for its time, but is even more confounding a decade later.

What the playwright lacks in tech savvy, she makes up for in her portrayal of a Latinx family from Philly. The play’s strongest moments are when cousins Elliot and Yazmin are alone, joking and reminiscing the way only close family members can. Part-time actor Elliot is repeatedly taunted by Yazmin for a Colgate commercial he did, and Elliot seems equally amused by how the family still loves Yazmin’s ex-husband. DeAngeles and Maria have a great sibling chemistry that makes these moments feel real.

Still, one has to wonder why Yazmin doesn’t receive the same development as Elliot. With the latter’s life and career known even to those HaikuMom sponsors, Yazmin’s relationship and career—former composer-turned-music-professor—are only briefly touched upon. In fact, the play ends with her making a decision that almost seems like a surrender. There are similar moments when HaikuMom seems like a poor moderator when Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders begin putting the screws to FountainHead, even if they do so as way of putting his narcissism in check.

In fairness, most of the roles are saved by the Denise Blasor-directed performances. Ramirez, a gifted performer capable of breathing new life into even Stella DuBois, holds firm grasp of the human core of HaikuMom, even as the world begins to crumble around her. Similarly, the always-reliable Sango Tajima finds another character to which she can bring her shining optimism, even though she often plays characters who have their optimism crushed.

Dorian Lockett and Sango Tajima in ‘Water by the Spoonful.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Having not seen any earlier productions, I’m unsure if the uncredited movement choreography is a traditional part of the show or one added by Blasor? The movements, performed by DeAngeles and Razawi, are fluid, but stand out in a way that doesn’t quite seem organic to the story. They give the impression of wanting to put a personal stamp on a work rather than amplifying what was already there. They aren’t bad, they just don’t really fit—much like Hudes seems intent on these characters having a happy ending no matter what.

Water by the Spoonful works best when it holds true to the classic recovery saying that one cannot and should not try going at it alone; that a strong, reliable support system is necessary to getting and staying healthy. Still, the text has the feel of two different stories that don’t entirely blend together the way the author would hope. Blasor and the Playhouse stage a competent production on Catalina Niño’s set, awash with black and blue, broken up by orange carnations. Much like the world at large, however, the Playhouse itself still acts as if we “recovering” theatre folk in the audience have been “cured” of a world ravaged with COVID.

But, as with addiction, there is no cure; just steps one can take to avoid the element of danger.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL runs through April 23 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets and information here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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