A gaping abyss is carved into the front of the ash-colored stage at Court Theatre, where “Water by the Spoonful,” Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play about a group of damaged, haunted, grief-struck souls opened this weekend. Nearly every one of Hudes’ characters looks deep into that abyss at one moment or the other. With so much agony, what hope?
The second (and 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning) entry in Hudes’ “Elliot Cycle” — a trilogy bookended by “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” and “The Happiest Song Plays Last” (produced by the Goodman Theatre), “Water by the Spoonful” is artful in its construction, which clearly is meant to echo the aching, dissonant music of jazz master John Coltrane. And it would be difficult to imagine more balletic direction than that devised here by Henry Godinez, whose immensely gifted cast acts the stuffing out the play. But Hudes’ characters — addicted to crack, cyberspace, and their own pain and dysfunction — can begin to grate on the nerves. And you might well find yourself thinking of that line from “Hamlet”: “The lady doth protest too much.”
At the center of the play is Elliot Ortiz (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), a handsome young former Marine of Puerto Rican heritage whose leg was severely damaged during his tour of duty in Iraq, but whose mind was left even more scarred by his encounters there. (Anish Jethmalani plays the ghostly man in Middle Eastern garb who repeatedly demands the return of his passport in Arabic). Now eking out a living at a Philadelphia area sandwich shop, and dabbling in acting (he has made a tootpaste commercial in Spanish), Elliot lives in Philadelphia, where he also serves as caretaker for the aunt — an exuberant community activist — who raised him, and who is now dying of cancer.
Elliot’s older cousin, Yazmin (Yadira Correa), sounds a bit like Hudes’ alter ego. She is the family’s success story, although she complains about her low-paying job as an adjunct music professor, and is in the midst of a divorce. And she only arrives to help Elliot when things are truly dire, and he needs help (and money) for his aunt’s funeral in Puerto Rico.
Orbiting around these two are a diverse group of troubled people who meet in an online chat room for those trying to kick their crack habits, and gradually begin to connect in the flesh. Among them is Odessa Ortiz, whose Internet name is Haikumom (Chariz Alvarez). She is Elliot’s anguished, guilt-ridden mother, who has been clean for some time, but is forever on the brink of a relapse. Joining her in these cybersapce sessions are: Orangutan (Marissa Lichwick), a brainy, adventurous Japanese-born woman in her twenties who, as an infant, was adopted by a couple in Maine, and is now back in Japan, desperately trying to find her birth mother; Chutes&Ladders [cq](Dexter Zollicoffer), a timid, 53-year-old black man who works for the IRS and has long been estranged from his son; and Fountainhead (Daniel Cantor), a wealthy businessman with a wife and kids who has been indulging his “Saturday only” habit far too much.
Supporting the actors’ near-operatic performances in this artful production are John Boesche’s Hades-like set design and projections, Heather Gilbert’s lights, Linda Rothke’s costumes and the sound design of Joshua Horvath and Kevin O’Donnell.
But while Elliot certainly has reason to mourn, the others here can sound pretty self-indulgent after awhile. And I couldn’t help thinking of a recent concert by Sting and Paul Simon in which the rock star sang Simon’s “America” as an anthem for a country that is not without pain and despair, bu† also is rich in promise and joy.