There are two plots running parallel here. The first involves a Latino Afghanistan war vet, Elliot (Zach Rufa) and his older cousin Yaz (Ivy Alphonse-Leja). Why we’re supposed to be interested in them is not clear; plot-wise the only relevant reason is that Elliot wants to bury his aunt and doesn’t have enough money to do so because his birth mother Odessa (Shadura Lee) won’t put up the share she owes him. Otherwise, their presence is largely to provide a forum for playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ questions about why economics and families determine one’s place in society (Elliot) and growing out of a collegiate lifestyle (Yaz).
The second plot, and the one that’s far more interesting, involves a group of online message board users on the mend from crack addiction. Their usernames are apt; Fountainhead (Andrew Ganem), an Ayn Rand-loving businessman acutely aware of how easy his next fix will land him in the gutter; Orangutan (Natalie Cutler), a Japanese-American 20-something biding her time in the cities of Japan, and finally Chutes and Ladders, a 50-year-old black IRS filing clerk, who, being born wayward (“I was the kid who ate the crayons”) now sticks to the straight and narrow with a rigor mortis-like grip.
It’s here that director Patricia Ybarra’s staging and Hudes’ dialogue come together to create an engaging setting where we witness a message board thread happening in real time. In particular, the setup reinforces the reactionary relationship between Chutes and Ladders and Orangutan; she needs someone to lead her on the way, he needs someone to show him how to be brave.
Justin Harris’ portrayal of Chutes and Ladders is commanding. Despite being a gregarious character, Harris never plays Chutes and Ladders for laughs, which make his wittier lines, “You should know I’m 50 years old on a good day,” all the more biting and comical.
While on message about the dangers of stereotyping crack cocaine addiction, Water by the Spoonful overplays its hand by trying to address a series of smaller issues at the same level of its core concern: addiction and relationships.
By the end of the third act, the two plots dovetail into each other in a way that creates a resonance around the characters. However, considering a two-hour running time, it’s a long way for the audience to go for such a small payoff.