Review: WATER BY THE SPOONFUL at New City Players

This production runs through May 15 at Island City Stage

By: May. 04, 2022
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Review: WATER BY THE SPOONFUL at New City Players

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us some valuable lessons about life. When we are isolated, there will always be someone to turn to as our family in times of hardship, even if they are not blood relatives. Moreover, the people who hurt us in the past can still be there to help us heal. While Quiara Alegria Hudes' play Water by the Spoonful is set in 2009, its themes pertaining to addiction, loss, and developing interpersonal bonds still ring true in 2022. New City Players took on the challenge of staging Hudes' Pulitzer Prize-winning play with grace and respect.

The second part of Hudes' Elliot trilogy (which also includes the plays Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue and The Happiest Song Plays Last), Water by the Spoonful was first commissioned at Hartford Stage in 2011. The play made its Off-Broadway debut at Second Stage Theater in 2012, when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Water by the Spoonful tells the story of Elliot Ortiz (Alex Joyel), a young ex-marine and aspiring actor who returns to his hometown of Philadelphia after serving in Iraq. During his tour of duty, Elliot sustains an injury that leaves him addicted to prescription painkillers. The young man's dependency is exacerbated by some traumatic experiences that haunt him. Elliot must overcome his demons while he and his Type-A music-professor cousin Yazmin (Pryscila Cassiano Salinas) prepare for the funeral of their aunt "Mama Ginny", who happens to be Elliot's adoptive mother.

Meanwhile, Elliot's biological mother, Odessa (Arlette Del Toro) is six years sober after a long-time addiction to cocaine. She leads an anonymous online chatroom of recovering cocaine addicts from all walks of life under the pseudonym "Haikumom." The group is comprised of "ChutesAndLadders" (R. Kent Chambers-Wilson)-a middle-aged Black man in San Diego working for the IRS, and "Orangutan" a young woman working as an English teacher in Japan (played as a nonbinary character by Tyler Fitch). When a wealthy addict in denial named "Fountainhead" (Christopher Dreeson) joins the chatroom hoping to conceal his addiction from his wife, he forms an unlikely familial bond with Odessa.

Elizabeth Price directs Water by the Spoonful in a heartfelt and genuine manner. She collaborates with dramaturg Ilana Jael and community partners such as The SPOT Broward and FHE Health to ensure that the topics of addiction and trauma are treated with reverence and dignity. At the same time, Price ensures that every relationship depicted onstage is genuine, and not just between family members. When she stages the various chatroom scenes, she creates a space where actors can communicate with each other vulnerably, even when characters aren't in the same room.

Joyel plays Elliot with raw, unbridled energy. His animalistic physicality is complemented by the loving warmth he radiates on stage. Joyel also gives his character naturalistic tics during moments of PTSD, particularly those involving the Ghost of a dead Iraqi civilian (played by Fawad Siddiqui). During moments of levity, Joyel delivers his lines with natural comic timing. One prime example of this takes place at the beginning of Act One, where Elliot performs his "Sonrisa!" commercial for Colgate toothpaste.

When the audience first sees Salinas as Yazmin, she appears stuffy and hesitant. However, by the end of Act One, when she delivers the eulogy for her aunt, she becomes more relaxed and confident on stage. Salinas's character arc evolves from a naive young woman finding herself to a mature and maternal role model who puts her family first. As an actress, Salinas also speaks distinctively, enunciating her lines without sounding rote or robotic.

Del Toro's portrayal of Odessa is a masterclass in character building and emotional investment. While Odessa is leading her online chatroom, del Torro builds a wall for her character to hide behind as "Haikumom," serving as a spiritual guide for the addicts she leads. However, when Odessa finds out about her sister's passing, del Toro's gait shifts from upright to limp and free-flowing as her character relapses. As Odessa is about to overdose, del Toro delivers a performance that puts the audience in a trance, placing them in the same out-of-body experience her character undergoes after six years of sobriety.

As "ChutesAndLadders," Chambers-Wilson is always ready to crack a joke, even in moments where he may appear judgmental. This comic relief is juxtaposed with the almost paternal love that Chambers-Wilson injects into his character, especially when interacting with "Fountainhead" and "Orangutan."

This production makes an unconventional choice by casting Fitch, a nonbinary performer, as "Orangutan," who was originally written as a woman. Price does an excellent job normalizing the character's LGBTQ status in this production, focusing instead on "Orangutan's" desire to find their biological parents as they navigate their way through a new country. While onstage, Fitch delivers their lines with youthful energy and spot-on comic timing during moments of self-deprecating humor.

Dreeson plays "Fountainhead" with strength and charisma. When we first see Dreeson onstage, he speaks with a booming, articulate voice and stands tall, exerting his character's perceived power. However, by the end of Act Two, Dreeson slowly breaks down "Fountainhead's" WASP-y barriers. This tough exterior is replaced with a soft and sympathetic one, which is especially visible when "Fountainhead" becomes Odessa's personal caretaker following her relapse.

For most of the play, Siddiqui plays The Ghost of Elliot's first kill in Iraq. In the few scenes where he appears in Elliot's conscience, Siddiqui only delivers one line-- an Arabic phrase that translates to English as "can I please have my passport back?" Siddiqui adds variety to each delivery of the line in a manner that is both innocent and gut-wrenching. In addition to playing the Ghost, Siddiqui briefly appears in the first scene of Act One as Professor Aman, a colleague of Yazmin specializing in Arabic. In this scene, Siddiqui maintains gracious chemistry with Salinas' Yazmin and Joyel's Elliot.

Scenic designer K. April Soroko uses levels to create a versatile playing space within Island City Stage's black box theater, whose stage is draped in reflective water-blue drops. Costume designer Casey Sacco did not have to do extensive period research to dress the actors in this contemporary play. However, Sacco pays close attention to detail when selecting garments such as Elliot's Subway uniform (with a logo-embroidered polo shirt), "Fountainhead's" designer suits, "Orangutan's" graphic tees, and The Ghost's traditional robe known as a dishdasha.

Lighting designer Desirae Merritt uses simple blue and white color washes to illuminate this production in a manner that complements Price's staging and Soroko's set. The most notable lighting cue from Merritt's design would have to be the flashing lights used to show The Ghost in various flashbacks. Sound designer Ernesto Gonzalez underscores this production with free-form jazz from artists such as John Coltrane, which is used to show the fine line between freedom and restraint that addicts must tread throughout their recovery.

New City Players took on the challenge of tackling Water by the Spoonful's themes of addiction and recovery humbly and tastefully. While this production had some obstacles regarding casting and working in a new space, Water by the Spoonful is a cathartic piece of theater that is elevated by Price's staging and strong ensemble performances.