January 12, 2013

"Water by the Spoonful" Won a Pulitizer But It Falls a Bit Short of that Highest-Water Mark

The news that she was getting $10,000 and a place at the table alongside America’s greatest playwrights must have thrilled Quiara Alegría Hudes when she got the news that her play Water by the Spoonful had won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. But I can’t help thinking that the Pulitzer committee may also have done her and her play a disservice (click here to read an interview with the playwright).  

First off, its decision pissed off people like me who had been rooting for either of the other finalists, Other Desert Cities (click here for my review of it) or Sons of the Prophet (and here for my review of that one) two of the best American plays to come down the pike in a long time.

And, of course, the decision cranked up expectations (and brought out the schadenfreude patrol) for Water by the Spoonful, which is only now making its New York debut at Second Stage Theatre though Feb. 10.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the description of the play in the committee’s citation—“an imaginative play about the search for meaning by a returning Iraq war veteran working in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Philadelphia”—is so half-assed that I now wonder whether its members really understood what the play was about.  

Because even on the simplest level—and the play, albeit imperfect, operates on multiple planes—there is a lot more going on in Water by the Spoonful. It is the second in a planned trilogy in which the continuing character is Elliot Ortiz, the young vet in the committee’s description. 

But sharing the stage this time, and just as important as Elliot, is a quartet of crack addicts from different ethnic and economic backgrounds who come together in an Internet chat room where they try to help one another stay clean.

These seemingly separate stories intersect and struggle toward resolutions in the second act. But, confused by the committee’s description and given too little help by the play itself or its director Davis McCallum, I spent too much time trying to figure out why the chat room folks were there, why the ghost of an Iraqi man kept floating through, why Elliot’s musicologist cousin Yaz was lecturing the audience about John Coltrane.

I was never bored but I was never fully engaged or, ultimately, moved either. There were a few too many coincidences. Far too many of the resolutions seemed contrived.

Still, I admired some of the acting (particularly Armando Riesco who is playing Elliot in all three parts of the trilogy and wraps himself in the role as though it were a favorite old sweater). I also appreciate the way Hudes treats race as though it is just one factor in her characters' lives—and not the totality of their being as it is so often portrayed in plays.

But I concede that my perceptions may have been colored by unrealistic expectations. I wish I had seen Water by the Spoonful before it won the Pulitzer.  I also wish a think-outside-the-box director like David Cromer had staged it.  But even so, the bold ambition of Hodes’ play makes me glad that I saw it.

1 comment:

Esther said...

I'm so glad you brought up the Pulitzer citation.

I also went into Water by the Spoonful thinking it was going to be a play about an Iraq war veteran returning home. It certainly seemed that way from the opening scenes.

But then the play moved into territory so different and seemingly unconnected that it just bewildered me. I wasn't sure who or what it was about. Quite a few people left at intermission and I can understand why.

I thought the part about the recovering addicts meeting online was interesting but I felt it should have been in a separate play.

I also felt kind of cheated that the play brings up this mystery of something that happened in Iraq and then just kind of drops it.

So on all accounts I left feeling unsatisfied. I don't know what went through the minds of Pulitzer jurors but maybe on the page it seemed to work and it must have seemed very contemporary with its themes of Iraq and addiction and the Internet. But I felt the other two finalists were much more absorbing.