Chemical addiction is notoriously hard to write about, so loaded is the subject with cliché. In Water by the Spoonful, which is receiving its New York premiere at Second Stage Theatre after winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Quiara Alegria Hudes slyly mocks the hackneyed language of 12-step meetings. In an online chatroom for crack addicts, three of its participants spout the slogans by which AA meetings are known the world over.
Unfortunately for this sometimes potent drama about Iraq war veteran Elliot and his attempt to re-adjust to civilian life in his hometown, Philadelphia, such sarcasm enlivens the play with humour but cannot mask an overly melodramatic approach to the characters.
Ginny, the aunt who raised Elliot, dies early in the two-act evening, and much of the story concerns attempts by Elliot and Yaz, his music professor cousin, to arrange the funeral. Raising funds for the flowers (Neil Patel’s set is suffused with lush vegetation), they seek out Odessa, who is Elliot’s birth mother and the caring administrator of the crack-addict chat site.
Yaz and Elliot find Odessa at a café, where she is having a tough conversation with Fountainhead, a new chatroom participant given a touching pride by Bill Heck. Elliot brings up the moment in his childhood when he and his younger sister were ill and were supposed to be given spoonfuls of water by their mother. Hobbled by drug use, she failed in the task.
Recovery, the play keeps telling us, comes via small doses – and sometimes not at all. But Hudes’ message-making might have been stronger if it had more small doses and fewer Big Moments. What’s more, the play’s structure suffers from its forays into the relationship between two non-family chatroom members. I understand that Hudes is dramatising unlikely connections – the ways in which we form families to gain the emotion denied us by our biological relations. But my interest waned when the play strayed too far from Elliot’s core story.
The direction by Davis McCallum, and the cast – led by Armando Riesco as Elliot – are excellent. Water by the Spoonful is the second play in a trilogy that began with Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. The third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will have its world premiere in April at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.