Just exactly how much of your waking life do you spend online, including right now? Don’t worry, this isn’t a mass intervention. Virtual existence is a big part of most modern Americans’ day-to-day lives and yet there have been very few successful attempts to dramatize that ubiquitous experience. So it’s interesting to watch Quiara Alegría Hudes’ humane and lively new play Water by the Spoonful — which surprised many by winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize on the merit of its text alone — take a big swing at reifying these online interactions on the stage and largely succeed at making them engaging.
Hudes splits her time between two distinct groups. First, there’s the offline interaction of two Puerto Rican cousins — Elliot (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran plagued by the memory of his first kill, and Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara), a music professor who escaped the barrio and is now dogged by her own kind of survivor’s guilt — following the death of their clan’s matriarch. Then there’s the back-and-forth between four disparate recovering crack addicts who frequent an internet support group. Director Davis McCallum presents the latter conversations vividly, placing them in their actual contexts — a kitchen, a sofa, a cubicle workstation, etc. — while having them speak their typed responses as actual dialogue, a technique that ends up feeling far more intuitive than gimmicky.
But while the online relationships are deeply empathetic, each character is known to the others only by his or her avatar. Haikumom (Liza Colón-Zayas) is the site administrator, a kindly maternal figure to Orangutan (Sue Jean Kim), a young Japanese adoptee with identity issues, and Chutes&Ladders (The Wire’s Frankie Faison), a middle-aged IRS employee whose addiction cost him his family. Their tight-knit virtual village is abruptly joined by Fountainhead (Bill Heck), the appropriately Randian handle for a white-collar entrepreneur with a boulder-sized ego and a rock-sized drug habit. All of Hudes’ characters, Elliott and Yazmin included, are trying to escape the mistakes of their respective pasts while grasping for a handhold on the future. The performances are uniformly solid, and the two stories — online and offline — flow gracefully, eventually merging organically at the end of the first act.
Hudes never lets her characters wallow too deeply in their deficiencies, inflating each conversation with light-hearted humor as well as the expected pathos. At its heart, Water by the Spoonful is about finding meaningful interaction in whatever form it may take. Rather than bemoan the Internet as a double-edged sword that elongates emotional distances even as it transcends geographic ones, Hudes proposes that it’s just another tool for people to discover other people, giving a new technological reading to E.M. Forster’s maxim, ”Only connect.” A?
(Tickets: www.2st.com, or by phone at (212)-246-4422)