The central characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes’s vibrant tapestry of a play, “Water by the Spoonful,” are Elliot (Armando Riesco), an ex-Marine wounded in Iraq and his slightly older cousin Yazmin (Zabryna Guevara), who teaches music and is just emerging from a failed marriage.
Spirits shadow Elliot. First is the first Iraqi he killed. The second is the sister who died of neglect when they were infants and their mother, Odessa (Liza Colon-Zayas), was a crack addict.
Odessa now runs a chat room (screen name “Haikumom”) for struggling crack addicts. Her sister, who had subsequently raised Elliot, will soon die a mundane death-by-junk-food.
So we have two worlds: the Philadelphia story of a Puerto Rican family riven by crack, not to mention war. And the virtual world, in which “Haikumom” mediates often heated exchanges between “Chutes and Ladders” (Frankie Faison), a middle-aged low-level bureaucrat who’s black and estranged from his son and grandchildren, and “Orangutan” (Sue Jean Kim), a rootless, Japanese-born young woman searching for connection and sobriety.
The newest visitor to the chat room is “Fountainhead” (Bill Heck), an internet entrepreneur in denial about his own addiction.
Staged with unshowy inventiveness by Davis McCallum, “Water by the Spoonful,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, eventually brings these disparate stories together. “Fountainhead” becomes the unlikely link between them.
Set designer Neil Patel in particular has outdone himself, finding a simple visual way to show the online interactions without detracting from the human ones. The seven fine actors in this ensemble (including Ryan Shams in multiple roles) work as seamlessly as the tales they have to tell.
Elliot’s reward for service is addiction to painkillers and a job at Subway. Yazmin’s lectures on John Coltrane and free jazz aren’t nearly as off-topic as they at first seem. But it’s the love between them -- inarguably a love supreme -- that gives this play its great power. If you want evidence that American playwriting is in very good hands, you need look no further.
Through Jan. 27 at Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-246-4422; http://www.2st.com. Rating: ****
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(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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