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‘Water by the Spoonful’ at the Taper—Does the Pulitzer Winner Satisfy?

The Pulitzer Prize can pretty much be broken down into three basic sub-categories.

First, and some might say the least, of the represented, is that of fully deserving winners.

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Thornton Wilder’s By the Skin of Our Teeth and J.B. by Archibald MacLeish.

Then you have the “Extenuating Circumstances” category.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee won the Pulitzer in 1967, and while a good enough work, all knew it was essentially a consolation prize for the Pulitzer advisory board’s inexcusable refusal to acknowledge Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1963. Due to issues of “blue” language and frank sexuality, the board instead opted to not give out the prize for drama that year; a decision which lead to playwrights John Mason Brown and John Gassner resigning from the board.

I’ve heard it debated; if Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent was worthy of a Pulitzer or whether dying on the morning of your first preview performance was just a smart career move.

Ask me why That Championship Season won in 1971: The best reason I can come up with is, “Hey, the playwright kicked Satan’s butt in the Exorcist!”

The Young Man From Atlanta was meandering, like most of Horton Foote’s dramas and but also suffered from a sketchy and clumsy narrative; but what the heck he’d written better plays and even a couple of great screenplays.

And South Pacific won in 1950 for Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan because the advisory board wanted to honor their Broadway careers and, apparently, nobody had read James Michener’s 1947 Pulitzer Prize winning novel upon which it was based. Gold Trophy

The final category I think can be best described as “Big Time Broadway Bollix.”

There’s Zoë Akins’ The Old Maid, which, even when it opened on Broadway, was berated as   “stagey, somber and generally confusing,”

There’s Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White, a jerk-kneed tear-jerker which won the 1934 award for the writer whose most enduring contribution to the American art’s scene was the Bowery Boys (aka Dead End Kids).

1988’s Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry, over Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio?

Neil Simon’s 1991 Lost in Yonkers over John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation?

Paul Zindel’s 1971 by the numbers winner The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds, which I’m waiting to see in rep with the 1945 recipient Harvey by Mary Chase.  (Sorry, I just can’t wrap my mind around a “feel-good play about mental illness.”)

 

Bernard K Addison

Bernard K. Addison in the Center Theatre Group’s production, “Water by the Spoonful” at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Unfortunately, my prediction is that Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water By the Spoonful, the 2012 Pulitzer winner, is destined for the latter grouping.

Not that there isn’t some fine writing on display in the Mark Taper Forum production.  The staging boasts a tightly structured morality piece set in an online forum-stash-confessional for recovering crack users.

Secure in the seclusion of cyber-space, they can drop the masquerade of normalcy that all addicts adapt, to camouflage the raw and raging craving that chains their every conscious thought.

There’s Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) who glories in being her very own Ground Zero, Chutes & Ladders (Bernard K. Addison) the IRS timeserver trying to salvage the flotsam of the family his habit lost him, Fountainhead (Josh Braaten) the upscale user, and the den mother-moderator Odessa (Luna Lauren Vélez) six years clean.

Here Hudes presents four sympathetic characters with painful and precise arcs that slice to the bone; all of whom have come to this site seeking salvation among strangers.

If this were the play in totality, I would be penning a different review.

But this is the center piece of Hudes’ trilogy that follows three generations of a Puerto Rican family, which commenced in Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue; which is presently being staged at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.  A production I have not seen, of a play I have not read.  I only know what I have learned from Deborah Klugman’s review of it in the LA Weekly.  Klugman’s reviews are generally insightful and informative and so I discover the foremost piece centers on the lives of three generations in the same family who answered their country’s call to serve in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and the daughter-wife-mother rages against warfare and seeks sanctuary in her garden.

That mother who seems to be the central presence of the opening drama is absent from the stage of the second, and the proud young soldier of the initial work is here a crippled “sandwich artist” (Sean Carvajal) at Subway who, with his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), is struggling to deal with his mother’s death.  And there is the specter of an Afghan peasant (Nick Massouh) who wanders about as well.

Klugman’s review is not one that would entice the casual theatergoer to the Kirk Douglas.  She tends to fault the production, but as I find similar flaws in the Taper’s offering I cast my eyes towards the playwright.

I admire the ambition of Hudes’ undertaking, but sadly, if the parts are unable to stand independently as in Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests, Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle and of course Will’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, then the effort is moot.

The characters of Elliot and Yazmin who—though the bridges to the preceding and proceeding plays—in this middle work are, to use a military term, “dangling flanks” with all of their inherent weaknesses.

If both were banished from the narrative of Water by the Spoonful (along with that ambling Afghan apparition) the effect would be an improvement to the piece.  Regardless of the character of Elliot bridging the first offering in Hudes’ trilogy, and the character of Yazmin, I assume coming to center stage in the closing drama, here in the center piece they are little more than third nipples.

Lileana Blain-Cruz’s staging is boldly crafted with multiple playing areas, projected graphics for the chat room participants and even a tropical down pour in a Puerto Rican rain forest — but I’d trade all the finely staged theatrics for a more focused narrative.

After the final curtain I asked three different audience members: Whose story were we being told and who was the play’s protagonist?

No one could answer my first inquiry, and for the second question I received two different responses and one, “Well, they all were.”

There you have a sad postmortem on Hudes’ efforts and the Pulitzer’s adjudication.

 

*    *    *

 

Gold Trophy They share a title and that’s it.  Michener’s novella based on his wartime service is savage and brutal – rape, torture, racism, genital elephantiasis – not a lot to tap your toes to.)

 

Water by the Spoonful
Mark Taper Forum
running now thru March 11
For Tickets and information Click HERE.

or visit:  CenterTheatreGroup.org

or call: (213) 628-2772.


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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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