'Water by the Spoonful' review: Pulitzer winner is mindful and messy

Bill Heck and Liza Colon-Zayas during a performance

Bill Heck and Liza Colon-Zayas during a performance of "Water By The Spoonful," a play by Quiara Alegria Hudes. (December 10, 2012) (Credit: AP)

Surprise would be an understatement to describe reactions when the Pulitzer Prize board chose "Water by the Spoonful" last year over better-known fellow finalists "Other Desert Cities" and "Sons of the Prophet." Not only had the other two plays been seen in acclaimed New York stagings, but the winning play, by Quiara Alegría Hudes, was the rare work to be selected on the basis of the script and not performance.

Finally, New York gets to see "Water by the Spoonful" in a loving production by Davis McCallum, who also directed its world premiere at the Hartford Stage with several of the same actors. The work is a multitextured, overlapping look at a Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia and a racially diverse group of recovering crack addicts in an online support group.

The production is not likely to settle many Pulitzer arguments. The sprawling drama is intentionally messy about relationships and scattershot themes, then a bit too neat at the end. But Hudes -- also a 2007 Pulitzer finalist for "Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue" and book writer of the 2009 Pulitzer-finalist musical "In the Heights" -- cares deeply about her characters. That concern is contagious.

This is the second in a trilogy about the impact of war on generations of a Puerto Rican- American family. The cycle began with "Elliot" and ends this spring in Chicago with "The Happiest Song Plays Last."

In this one, the ghost-haunted Elliot (Armando Riesco) has returned home to Philadelphia. After the woman who raised him dies of cancer, he and his cousin Yaz (Zabryna Guevara) try to scrounge money for the funeral from another relative (Liza Colón-Zayas) with an agonizing past.

This woman also is the site administrator for the Internet group, which includes an aging black man (Frankie Faison), a hyperactive young woman (Sue Jean Kim) adopted from Japan as a baby and a cocky, upscale newcomer (Bill Heck) in denial. Their Web names are projected on the foliage-dotted wall as they text one another -- strangers who know each other better than they know themselves.

There is overly predictable recovery talk, but also revelations that fit into a jagged mosaic of forgiveness. Yaz, a music teacher and frustrated composer, plays John Coltrane to explain the freeing power of dissonance. Hudes knows that, too.

WHAT "Water by the Spoonful"

WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 305 W. 43rd St.

INFO $75; 212-246-4422; 2st.com

BOTTOM LINE Sprawling, caring new Pulitzer drama

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