RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through April 6
By ANNE SPISELMAN
In the program notes for Court Theatre’s Chicago premiere of Ouiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful,” director Henry Godinez says that plays get their message across most potently when “the audience can identify themselves in what they’re seeing, can empathize with the characters, even though they’re totally different from them.” He goes on to hope that when people leave the theater they “will feel differently about crack addicts, and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ “
Alas, I left the theater wondering why should I care about these characters. With two exceptions: Elliot Ortiz (Edgar Miguel Sanchez), the injured Puerto Rican Iraqi War veteran and would-be actor working in a sandwich shop and battling several demons, and his cousin Yazmin Ortiz (Yadira Correa), an underpaid adjunct music professor whose divorce is being finalized and who becomes the family “elder” by default. They have the most veracity, no accident since the playwright drew on the experiences of her own family.
The first half of the play, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize to the surprise of many, alternates between real-world scenes of them grappling with a crisis—the death of Elliot’s beloved “Mami Gini,” the aunt who raised him—and the virtual world, an internet chat room for recovering crack addicts. Here we meet petite, spunky Orangutan (Marissa Lichwick), who fights to stay straight daily and has taken off for Japan to find her birth parents; Chutes&Ladders (Dexter Zollicoffer), an African American IRS employee who’s been off crack for many years but is afraid of any real-world attachments, including with his own son; and Fountainhead (Daniel Cantor), an affluent white businessman and new member who’s in denial about his addiction. The administrator of the site is Haikumom (Charin Alvarez), who guides it with a caring and nonjudgmental hand.
While Godinez’s staging strives to make their exchanges interesting—by having them address the audience and, occasionally, each other directly rather than typing away on keyboards—we learn more about these addicts’ back stories than we want to know before the connection between the two worlds is revealed at the end of Act 1, a rather manipulative theatrical device. As it turns out, Haikumom is former crackhead Odessa Ortiz, Elliot’s mother, and her inability to cope with blood relatives as well as she does with online strangers dominates the second act.
But her interaction with Elliot doesn’t quite hold water, nor does his cruel behavior towards her, despite his later guilt-ridden explanations. The play also lacks a certain cohesiveness and narrative force, perhaps partly because it comes in the middle of a triology that begins with “Elliot: a Soldier’s Fugue” and ends with “The Happiest Song Plays Last.”
Apparently, each of the plays is infused with a different kind of music, and in the case of “Water,” it’s jazz, specifically both the lyrical and more dissonant sounds of John Coltrane. Yazmin lectures on free jazz to her music class, lest we not get the point, and some of the selections complement and comment on the action most effectively, though a few seem contrived.
I have qualms about the more surreal aspects of the staging, too. In the middle of the floor of John Boesche’s hell-like set is a big, ragged-edged hole that represents the abyss, but it’s rather distracting and at odds with his projections of Philly, San Diego, Japan, and Puerto Rico on dappled panels. At the beginning of each act, Godinez has the actors go running round and round the stage, and I still haven’t figured out what this is supposed to mean.
One thing I do know, though, is that the acting is the main reason to see “Water by the Spoonful.” Sanchez’s complicated Elliott is especially engaging and made me want to know more about him. Correa’s strong, dependable Yazmin comes across as the cousin anyone would want to have, and the affectionate interplay between them strikes all the right notes. Alvarez is compelling as Haikumom/Odessa, but the way her story is told didn’t move me as much as it should have. As for the determinedly multicultural chat room trio, they provide comic relief, make socio-political points, and suggest there’s hope for anyone willing to give recovery a sincere go–but take up too much of the evening.