Is it possible to fall in love with all the characters in a play, even those who see themselves as less-than-worthy members of the human race? And then, after more than a year, fall in love with them all over again?
That's what happened to me with "Water By The Spoonful," Quiara Alegría Hudes' play full of grace, humor and humanity that Hartford Stage commissioned, developed and produced in the fall of 2011.
The Pulitizer Prize-winning play opened off-Broadway at the 2econd Stage Theater Tuesday, directed again by Davis McCallum.
As the play begins, Elliot Ortiz, a former Marine who was wounded during his tour in Iraq, and his cousin Yazmin Ortiz, an adjunct professor of music who is finalizing a divorce, sit on a bench in Philadelphia and talk about their past and present lives.
It was like revisiting family.
In the next scene, when the quartet of on-line Narcotics Anonymous members appear on stage and begin their cyber banter (on line only — the audience sees them, but they can't see each other), it also felt like seeing old friends, in this case a group of resilient, struggling souls just trying to live one day at a time, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. They are known by their web names: Odessa, the leader of the website; Chutes and Ladders, a middle-age government worker; Fountainhead, a Philadelphia patrician down on his luck; Orangutan, a young Japanese-American woman.
It made me think back to the original Hartford run, which was clobbered with the Halloween snowstorm that closed roads, slowed daily activity and left many in the region without power for days. Going to the theater was not the top priority during those weeks for many people, including several national critics and a few local ones, too, who passed on reviewing the under-the-radar play.
Sure, Hudes was a Tony Award nominee for the musical "In the Heights." An earlier play, "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue," (the Elliot in 'Water'), was a finalist for the Pulitzer, as was her script of "In the Heights". But "Water By The Spoonful" had no stars, no catchy story-line, no commercial connections.
Because of the lingering and disruptive effects of the storm, not many people saw the world premiere in Hartford. The show closed in November, 2011, not coming close to meeting its revenue projections.
Months passed and then in April, on a train to New York, an alert on my iPad said the Pulitzer Prize in Drama was awarded to "Water By The Spoonful." The other finalists were "Other Desert Cities" by Jon Robin Baitz, and "Sons of the Prophet" by Stephen Karam, two shows I admired. (I gave high praise to "Prophet" in my review for Variety when it premiered in Boston.)
But "Spoonful" took everyone — myself included — by surprise. The general opinion is that plays that are seen and supported by critics and audiences in New York are those favored for the Pulitzer. By last spring, "Other Desert Cities" and "Sons of the Prophets," had well-received New York productions.
So what was this "Water By The Spoonful," people wondered? A script wasn't even published until months after it won the prize. Some in theater chat rooms were less than kind to this "other" play few had heard of and even less had seen. It was reported that the Pulitzer judging was based on the Hudes' text, not the production, so what would people think once they saw the work on stage?
"New Yorkers like making the nation's tastes, not vice versa, and they're not famous for approving of plays coronated elsewhere," theater writer Michael Feingold wrote this week in the Village Voice.
But reaction to "Spoonful"'s New York premiere last week was generally positive, though there were several critics who shrugged and a few who sniped.
Charles Isherwood of the New York Times was enthusiastic, saying the play "gives off a shimmering, sustaining warmth. Ms. Hudes writes with such empathy and vibrant humor about people helping one another to face down their demons that regeneration and renewal always seem to be just around the corner."
USA Today rated the production an A minus, calling it a "humane and lively play." Newsday called it "a jagged mosaic of forgiveness." Time Out New York called Hudes "a writer of enormous empathetic gifts." The Huffington Post called the play a "beautifully resounding drama." Variety's Marilyn Stasio said, "Although it doesn't fully achieve its lofty aspirations...[it] makes an urgent plea for the human connections that people need to survive in a soulless age of alienation."
The Daily News was less enchanted, giving it three out of five stars; The New York Post rated it 2 1/2 stars out of 4. (The post quipped, "The first thing that comes to mind is: This fine but innocuous show won last year's Pulitzer Prize?")
"I feel very relieved," said Hudes, looking radiant at the opening night party on 42nd Street Tuesday. (She is eight months pregnant and was accompanied by her husband, Ray Beauchamp.)
"It's been hard," she said. "There have been expectations in New York and I've had a lot of anxiety, Sometimes the arts can feel like a blood sport a little."
Hudes said there were minor changes in the script from Hartford to New York, "but God is in the details. We've worked very hard pushing everyone so bless their souls, they worked so tirelessly and I'm very happy tonight."
The new production has some new actors. Bill Heck plays Fountainhead. (He played Horace in Hartford Stage's epic "The Orphan's Home Cycle.") Frankie Faison is Chutes and Ladders; Sue Jean Kim plays Orangutan. Ryan Shams play Prof. Aman. Returning in roles they originated in Hartford are: Liza Colón-Zayas as Odessa; Zabryna Guevara as Yaz; and Armando Riesco as Elliot — the character that carries throughout all three plays of the trilogy. . (The third play, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," opens at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in April. "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue" and "Happiest Song" were developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford.)
Also at the party were two Aetna executives — Floyd W. Green III, head of community relations and urban marketing and Chris Montross, managing director of corporate public involvement — who had a reason to be especially proud. Hudes was a fellow in the Aetna Voices program at Hartford Stage, which supports playwrights of color working on new material. Hudes is the first Latina to win the Pulitzer Prize.
"We're just delighted to be part of this partnership and just to know that it started in Hartford," said Green.
This season's Aetna Voices playwright is Daniel Beaty. The world premiere of his play with music, "Breath & Imagination" opens Wednesday at Hartford Stage.
WATER BY THE SPOONFUL runs through Jan. 27 at the 2econd Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St., New York City. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 and 7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. Tickets are $75. Information: 212-246-4422 and http://www.2st.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times