In the final moments of Water by the Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Alegría Hudes, Elliot, a veteran of the Iraq war, stands in a Puerto Rican rain forest. He’s about to spread the ashes of his aunt, the woman who raised him after his crack-addicted mother surrendered custody. Then he gets a text message: Elliot’s father has sold his house.
Before you accuse me of being a spoiler, let me assure you that this moment, like so many others in Hudes’s strangely ungrounded play, amounts to very little. Up to now Hudes has given Elliot’s father’s house barely a passing mention. She’s given Elliot’s father even less. And she’s provided no information whatsoever about Elliot’s relationship with his father. Yet when the text message arrives, Elliot (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) acts grievously injured, as though his father has committed a major act of betrayal. He’s elated—redeemed, even—a few minutes later, when his cousin Yazmin (Yadira Correa), who’s accompanied him to Puerto Rico, reveals she’s bought the house.
Hudes lays no groundwork to imbue this turn of events with significance, yet clearly she wants to bring about a catharsis. The same goes for Yazmin’s climactic moment a few minutes later. There, in the rain forest with her mother’s ashes, she’s suddenly awash in grief over her failure to have accomplished anything in her life. But up to this point Yazmin—a relatively well-off music professor and aspiring composer—has never seemed the slightest bit concerned with this supposed lack, nor has career frustration exerted any impact on her course through the play. It’s as though Hudes felt she had to give Yazmin a defining crisis before the final blackout, so pulled one out of thin air.
The problem runs throughout this nearly two-and-a-half hour work, now making its Chicago premiere at Court Theatre. Rather than creating genuine drama, Hudes has her characters describe the things that upset them. Yazmin feels guilty about leaving the poor North Philly neighborhood where she grew up. She’s unhappy about her just-finalized divorce. Elliot hates his job at a sandwich shop. He has occasional intrusive visions of an Iraqi civilian he killed. Such dilemmas might be the starting point for meaningful development, but here these facts have little bearing on the actions the characters take (in fact, through all of act one, Elliot and Yazmin’s only action is to buy flowers for the memorial service). Hudes doesn’t show us how such things shape, sway, or limit her characters’ lives; she’s satisfied with letting us know the problems exist.
This dramatic inertia is even more pronounced in a parallel story line involving a second set of characters, a quartet of recovering addicts who communicate with each other through an Internet forum for “crackheads.” Here Hudes essentially gives us four people yakking about how difficult it is to quit and what encourages them to keep trying. And when she does try to concoct some dramatic action—as when one of them, a Japanese-American woman adrift on a visit to Japan, admits to an infatuation with another and urges him to come visit her, forcing him to confront his own isolation—it feels expedient and underdeveloped.
As a result, Hudes spends two long acts merely dabbling with weighty issues. Very little develops, and nothing ripens, but many things pop up when convenient. Director Henry Godinez’s cast rarely get below the surfaces of their admittedly two-dimensional characters. They all share an emphatic, inelastic acting style—imagine every line written in boldface—that leaves little room for psychological nuance, and their sometimes stylized movement expresses little except awkwardness.
Hudes is a playwright unafraid of big things. Water by the Spoonful is just the second installment of the “Elliot Trilogy,” in the course of which she confronts numerous pressing social issues. But she can’t turn issues into anything that feels like life when she’s busy making things happen to suit her own dramatic needs. At the end of the play, when Elliot announces he’s no longer having his traumatic nightmares, it seems to be only because he’s reached the final scene.