By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
The phrase "water by the spoonful" has particular and literal reference in Quiara Alegria Hudes's Pulitzer Prize winning play currently on at the Arden Theatre, but before I saw it, I imagined it might be about the global water crisis:
Consider the recent chemical tainting of residential water in West Virginia. Consider the drought and raging wild fires in California. Consider that more than 1.2 billion people on earth now live without a reliable source of fresh water. Then consider that this play is about a bunch of crack addicts who do awful things and are, with the exception of Hudes' recurring character Elliot, utterly boring and unsympathetic characters.
Hudes is a Philadelphia playwright who has won considerable admiration and attention. She likes complicated structures: The Elliot Trilogy began with Elliot, A Soldiers Fugue, and will be completed with The Happiest Song Plays Last, opening in New York next month. Elliot (Armando Batista) in this play is a Marine recently returned from Iraq and haunted by a terrifying vision from the battlefield, an Arab (Tuhran Cayalak) with whom he struggles nightly.
The fugue-like device here is a chat room for addicts who cheer each other on and up; they recite their online messages by gazing off into space and speaking very slowly; they say stuff like, "It's never too late to learn" and "You are in for the fight of your life."
The woman who administers the website is Elliot's mother (Karina Aroyave who looks much too young for the role). Chatters/addicts include Chutes & Ladders (Brian Anthony Wilson) who stays clean by playing it too safe, Orangutan (Bi Jean Ngo) who is less courageous than she wishes she were, and Fountainhead (Kevin Bergen), a rich hypocrite who learns kindness. Yazmin (Amia Desanti) is the sanctimonious rich white girl who is, in ways I couldn’t follow, Elliot's cousin/romantic interest/best friend.
All the chatroom addicts are both angry and self-righteous. Presumably, part of the script's interest for Philadelphia audiences would be the local place-references, but mentioning Jefferson Hospital doesn't redeem the play for me.
What with the clichés and the slowtalking, director Lucie Tiberghien has her hands full to make this show engaging.
Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd St. Through March 16. Tickets $36-48.
Information: 215-922-1122 or ardentheatre.org