Wild, dissonant splotches of “free jazz” in the John Coltrane mode often bridge the scenes in Davis McCallum’s splashy production of Water by the Spoonful (Second Stage Theatre), which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s play, produced then at Hartford Stage, has finally made its way to New York, bearing that dangerous imprimatur.
New Yorkers like making the nation’s taste, not vice versa, and they’re not famous for approving of plays coronated elsewhere—a stance that the Pulitzer’s Drama committee has increasingly tried to combat in recent years. Both Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, a deeply flawed work by a gifted writer, and Rajiv Joseph’s considerably better Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (on which the committee was overruled by the Pulitzer’s main jury) began life outside New York and were treated sniffily by press and audiences when they ultimately moved to Broadway.
Like New York’s haughty preference for being the determining factor when prizes are dispensed, the committee’s insistence on hunting elsewhere for a prizewinner may strike one as silly and arbitrary, a well-meaning attempt to resist a bias that hardly exists any longer. The theater’s shrinkage as a cultural force in our society has so entangled New York with resident theaters nationwide that we are all, in effect, stuck in the same storm-tossed little boat. The sooner we stop squabbling over precedence and start figuring out practical ways to keep the damn thing from sinking, the better off we’re likely to be.
The image of a mixed lot of people crammed together in a storm-tossed boat makes a handy metaphor for Hudes’s play. The occupants of her event at first seem to be six randomly chosen Americans, ranging in ethnicity and class from an affluent white guy (Bill Heck) to a Latina (Liza Colón-Zayas) who cleans toilets for a living (as she puts it, “I’m a practitioner of the custodial arts”). What they mainly share is the sense that each is headed for ultimate disaster. Four of them, indeed, turn out to be ex-crackheads, always on the verge of relapse, who meet through a chat site created to help recovering addicts. There, the affluent white guy and the Latina custodian bat messages back and forth with a middle-aged black civil servant (Frankie Faison) and a Japanese-American adoptee (Sue Jean Kim) frenetically fixated on finding her birth parents.
The two characters not initially linked by the website are first cousins: Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara), an aspiring composer, and Elliot (Armando Riesco), an Iraq War vet-turned-actor despite a combat-injured leg. Yazmin, who teaches music, advocates a Coltrane-like freedom from structure. (“Coltrane democratized the notes,” she tells her class. “He said they were all equal.”) Elliot, the central figure in a planned trilogy of which Water is the second installment, has just lost his foster mother, Yazmin’s aunt, a dynamic social activist beloved by her community as well as her kin.
Struggling to help each other through their loss, Elliot and Yazmin both find themselves at a crossroads in their seemingly stalled careers. Meanwhile, the four recovering souls engage in a tangle of increasingly complex interactions. Midway through, inevitably, these two narratives intersect, revealing hidden connections, before they move on, somewhat patly, toward a range of tidy resolutions. That Hudes’s apparently disconnected fragments resolve so neatly may be seen as either a dramaturgical flaw or a buried joke on Yazmin’s espousal of Coltrane’s musical principles.
Either way, Water by the Spoonful arouses interest: A play that strives to embody the free jazz spirit shows commendable boldness even if it doesn’t attain that goal. And Hudes writes with an imaginative freshness that trumps her somewhat conventional conception of people and narrative. Her language mingles standard prose, common speech, and current jargon to make a pungent diction that belongs distinctively to our time. (Like her crisscrossing use of characters, it has a neighborly resemblance to the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis.) McCallum handles its shifting tonalities well, though his between-scenes multimedia glitz gets pointlessly insistent. In a generally strong cast, only Guevara seems not fully up to par, possibly because her scenes mostly pair her with Riesco, whose fiercely vulnerable, up-tempo rendering of Elliot’s anguish makes Hudes’s words jump into vibrant life.