TREADING WATER: Armando Batista as Elliot Ortiz and Maia DeSanti as Yazmin Ortiz in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Water by the Spoonful.
It makes perfect sense that the Arden Theatre Company would stage Water by the Spoonful. Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes is a native Philadelphian, and her play (the 2012 Pulitzer winner) is Philadelphia through-and-through. You’ll see frequent references to Swarthmore and Wharton; also a Spring Garden diner, and the neighborhoods of North Philly. For the locals, Water is a travelogue, but there’s a deeper point — Hudes wants to show us the wide range of life experiences and struggles in our melting-pot city.
The Arden has certainly honored Water with an accomplished, visually dazzling production. I can’t imagine an audience that wouldn’t be impressed with the work of director Lucie Tiberghien, set and lighting designers Alexis Distler and Eric Southern, and a strong acting ensemble.
Many will also be moved by the play itself — but I wasn’t.
In Water, Hudes alternates between two plots. The first finds Iraq veteran Elliot Ortiz returning to Philadelphia and a rocky readjustment to civilian life — he’s an aspiring actor forced by circumstances to work in a sandwich shop, while at home, the woman who raised him is losing her battle with cancer. Elliot’s confidante is his cousin Yazmin, who has her own issues, though her life and career (she’s a composer and college teacher) seem more rooted and successful than Elliot’s. The second plot involves an online chat room for recovering addicts — four people participate (we know them only by their online handles, e.g. “Fountainhead” and “Chutes & Ladders”), and again, the focus is on how they get through, day by day.
There’s some impressive craft in Hudes’ writing, notably the way in which the two storylines eventually merge, which is the chief pleasure of Water. The chat-room model opens lots of possibilities, allowing the action to follow a flexible time line, and to bring together people from across the world (California to Japan) and the social spectrum (the members include, among others, a Wharton M.B.A. earning six figures, and an out-of-work Asian-American girl wandering through Japan in search of her roots).
But the split focus feels jerky, with neither plot fully realized. The novelty of the chat-room scenes wears out quickly — the direct address to the audience is artificial and wearying, and the dialogue sounds neither like real speech nor social-media chatting, but rather an awkward conflation of the two. Frankly, the actual conversational writing (mostly for Elliot and Yazmin) also sounds stilted. (That the actors do as well with Water as they do — especially Maia DeSanti, Kevin Bergen and Brian Anthony Wilson — is a testament to the strength of the Arden production.)
Water is an issue-driven play. In her program note, Hudes writes eloquently about “individuals with stories just begging to be told,” and there’s never any doubt about her earnest commitment to those stories. But more often than not, the characters here (a too-obviously multi-ethnic mix) seem like mouthpieces — they’re more archetypes than people. And noble as it is to want to give voices to the disenfranchised, I have to wonder: Has Hudes watched TV or gone to the movies recently? These issues are in no sense unheard — they’re quite frequently a central topic. I’m sure in Hudes’ imagination, her characters and their experiences are unique and specific, but only occasionally does that come through in Water. (The incident referred to in the title is one of those rare moments.) More often, the play’s tone reminds me of a well-intentioned middle school report.
I’m sure mine is a minority view, so I urge you to judge Water by the Spoonful for yourselves. Perhaps you’ll enjoy it and learn from it. For me, it’s a worthy idea that in the execution rarely breaks free of its own artifice.
Through March 16, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
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