A split screen of two stories, WATER references big subjects like the Iraq war, cocaine addiction and family disintegration – but does not have much new to say about any of them. Lengthy staging of “social media” dramatically inert.
The second in a trilogy of plays about the Puerto Rican-American Ortiz family in North Philadelphia, WATER BY THE SPOONFUL follows two separate threads that eventually converge. One concerns Elliot, a 31 year Iraq war vet with serious leg injuries who is working for low pay at a sandwich shop and still trying to leave the psychological impact of his tour of duty behind him. The other follows a chat room for cocaine addicts with a crew of three regulars and one occasional visitor who is new to the game. Scenes alternate between the two worlds, and for a while it’s not clear what the link between them is.
The stronger half is the real world plight of Elliot, here played by a talented Daniel José Molina. Molina looks great in the part and deftly conjures the swagger, hurt, and confusion of a damaged Marine who has come home to no particularly promising opportunities. Elliot was raised by his aunt Ginny, who is now older and has been needing assistance from him and his cousin Yazmin, an adjunct music professor. Elliot’s actual birth mother Odessa gave him up when she descended into drug addiction. As the play begins, Elliot receives a text from his estranged father that Ginny could pass at any moment. She soon dies and Elliot and Yazmin have to tend to her funeral arrangements with scarce available funds. Also in the mix is a ghostly presence in the form of an Iraqi who keeps appearing to Elliot and repeating a phrase that has lodged so deeply in the young American’s psyche that he has asked Yazmin to put him in touch with an Arabic-speaking colleague of hers to help translate.
The addiction chat room world consists of den mother HAIKUMOM in Philadelphia, who runs www.recovertogether.com and her two addict charges ORANGUTAN, a 31 year old woman raised in Maine who has gone to Japan in search of her real parents, and CHUTES & LADDERS, a 56 year old black IRS employee in San Diego. HAIKUMON guides the other two through sobriety and provides encouragement as they struggle and/or succeed. Of course she has her own backstory with addiction. Into this status quo one day comes FOUNTAINHEAD, a wildly improbable new member who is a high-flying entrepreneur with a yellow Porsche and thinks he may have just a little problem with crack. The existing group tries to get FOUNTAINHEAD on course, with mixed results.
Whether or not anything like the chat room portrayed here still existed in 2009 (certainly it did in 1995), it feels like an extremely creaky setup. Indeed, if even hearing the ancient term “online chat room” gives you the willies, you may be similarly intolerant of watching the awkward staging of old-fashioned “online exchange” here. The conceit is that the characters all login now and then and then talk amongst themselves. They sit at different locations on stage and do not directly interact with each other. Most of the time they just talk aloud, and we get that they are typing and posting. But later in the play when Elliot’s narrative joins with the chat room, there are the dreaded moments when a keyboard is deployed.
Some things do not work very well on the stage. Car chases. Long walks. Closeups. And online activity, aka “social media”. We see many attempts by current playwrights to stage the minutiae of how people actually use social media, as if it is either new or even all that noteworthy. In a wide open audio medium like theatre, where anything is possible, what is interesting and compelling is THE VOICE – a character speaking. S/he might be speaking to another character who is present, or s/he might be on the phone, writing a letter, sending a telegram, sending a text. Or it could be a solo speech to the universe. Whatever the actual technology being used to transmit, the audience gets that the character is speaking. What is important is the WHAT (the character is saying), not the HOW (they say/send it).
Watching someone at a keyboard or on a mobile banging out text one character at a time that slowly appears on a screen behind them rarely works in the theatre. It is passive and undramatic and usually kills any momentum dead. Whereas in an engaging play, the action is flying along one step ahead of the audience and there’s an exciting feeling of hanging on for dear life, when it comes to dramatizing social media on stage like this, the dynamic switches and the audience waits for the slowed down play to catch up. It kills the dramatic through-line.
Did 19th century playwrights pack their works with long sequences showing people realistically tapping out telegrams just after that technology was born, or farther back putting quill to papyrus when all the cool kids were doing it? Would anything be gained by watching a character spend 5-10 seconds dialing out a long number on a rotary phone (another social media) before placing the call? Not really. Just pick up the phone and talk. With luck, we’ll soon be able to move on to a better standard way of conveying that a voice on stage is communicating via text or email or chat. But for now a lot of these exchanges are burdened by slow-moving, overly realistic rendering.
The play’s tone wobbles unconvincingly. The subjects at hand are serious, but there’s a strong sitcom, throw away one-liner energy that keeps popping out whenever it can, with many of the jokes seeming to serve no larger purpose or part of the narrative – they are simply little blips of humor that come to mind, asking for a laugh in return. It feels like the playwright has done plenty of research into the worlds of war vets and addiction and is painting by numbers to create characters based on what she learned. But none of the resulting figures has the ring of truth or authenticity.
There’s another confusing piece of fabric woven into this canvas – the music of John Coltrane. At one point Yazmin gives a dramatically inert lecture to her students about dissonance and how Coltrane’s music changed after 1965 as he moved into free jazz. The problem with inserting snippets from a masterpiece like A Love Supreme into a play’s soundtrack (other plays have the same problem when they project sections of famous films) is that unless the play is really good, you run the risk of making the audience wish you would just leave the music on. In this case, even five seconds of Coltrane’s eternal depth instantly upstages the entire play. I found myself wondering what the theatrical equivalent of such shimmering art would be, and wanting that.
It’s very hard to understand how this slight play won the 2012 Pulitzer, especially as Jon Robin Baitz’s considerably more ambitious and better executed OTHER DESERT CITIES was also in the running.