SF Playhouse's 'Water By the Spoonful'

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Saturday April 16, 2022
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Yazmin Ortiz (Lara Maria) pleads with her cousin Elliot Ortiz (Xander DeAngeles) as he is held back by a ghost from his past (Salim Razawi) in 'Water by the Spoonful' at San Francisco Playhouse.
Yazmin Ortiz (Lara Maria) pleads with her cousin Elliot Ortiz (Xander DeAngeles) as he is held back by a ghost from his past (Salim Razawi) in 'Water by the Spoonful' at San Francisco Playhouse.

Stories of intergenerational family drama, post-traumatic stress and the ravages of drug addiction are complexly interwoven in playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes' 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Water By The Spoonful. Hudes' layered storytelling has the richness of a long, engrossing novel. But, for the most part, the production now running at the San Francisco Playhouse feels like such a novel has not been brought to life on the stage, but physically dropped there. It lands with a thud.

It's particularly ironic that this show feels as inert as it does, because among the many subjects It touches on, perhaps too many, is the lightning fast communication and powerful community building allowed by the internet. About half the two hour running time of Water By The Spoonful takes place in an online chatroom for recovering crack addicts.

It's 2009, and geographically dispersed characters gather in digital space, identified to each other by their NA aliases: Middle-aged moderator Haikumom —whose IRL name is Odessa Ortiz (Lisa Ramirez)— and new group member, finance bro Fountainhead (Ben Euphrat) log in from Philadelphia; Chutes&Ladders (Dorian Lockett, in a standout performance) is a middle-manager in San Diego; and Orangutan (Sango Tajima) joins from Japan, where she was born, having fled the Midwest where she grew up as the adopted daughter of a white American couple.

Interspersed with the online vignettes is the Philadelphia story of Odessa's estranged extended family, a tale of telenovela-worthy melodrama — nephew Elliot (Xander DeAngeles), who struggles to hold a degrading job at Subway, is haunted by the ghost of a soldier he killed in Iraq (Salim Razawi, who plays several small roles); niece Yazmin (Lara Maria) is an upwardly mobile music professor at Swarthmore College; sister Gini (unseen on stage, as is a second unnamed, perhaps deceased sister) is ailing.

This clan's dark, sometimes horrifying secrets are compelling and nuanced enough for a play all their own (Three plays in fact, Water By The Spoonful, is the second in a trilogy which foregrounds this family, rather than putting it on equal footing with the online stories featured here. Were the three seen in sequence, Water's split between online and offline life might not feel quite as busy or lopsided.)

Chutes&Ladders (Dorian Lockett, right) connects across cyberspace with Orangutan (Sango Tajima) in 'Water by the Spoonful' at San Francisco Playhouse.  (Source: Jessica Palopoli)

During the chat scenes, director Denise Blasor positions these characters in their own separate pools of light. Even when their conversations move at a rapid clip and their voices cut each other off, they make no eye contact and remain hemmed in to their own small areas of the stage. The intense connection they tell us they've developed in their online shared space sounds credible and feels credible — but it looks like isolation.

The first play I saw that tried to depict online communication, way back in 1999, was Closer, writer Patrick Marber's twisty, pitch black comedy about sexual and emotional infidelity. Characters' chat room conversations appeared as typing on a large screen behind them, the performers seated at computers at opposite sides of the stage.

The differences between the often distracted or nonchalant onstage characters on stage and their feverishly engaged online personae generated laughs while offering a prescient bit of social commentary long before catfishing and fake news became blithely expected hazards of daily life.

Today though, even as we stay wary of those digital pitfalls, online communication has become a lingua franca. We understand that participants in online chat are literally in separate spaces, but literalism is not required on stage.

Director Blasor steps away from it, but only on tiptoes — there are no projected, typewritten texts here and the audience is trusted to understand that characters are speaking lines that they would be entering via keyboard. But having them deliver their lines while facing the audience and far apart from each other feels like a failure of imagination here, a clogging of the show's dramatic arteries.

In all fairness, those arteries might also be clogged by an over-rich script with too much on its plate (Again, the wisdom of presenting one chunk of a trilogy comes in question). But the larger, more interesting problem stems from the ambitious intermingling of theater, one of our oldest forms of communication with one of our newest. This production doesn't live up to that challenge, but it raises the need for its further, deeper consideration.

Water by the Spoonful, through April 23 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. $30-$100. (415) 552-8040.

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