The screenplay is delicious. Six roles all have the energy of the main character, that heady mix of virtues and weaknesses, desires and obstacles. As the ensemble confronts, hides and rediscovers its demons – drugs, PTSD – the dialogue merges the lyricism of a researcher with the relatability of the man in the street.
The acting in San Francisco Playhouse’s “Water by the Spoonful” is equally strong. Take Dorian Lockett, as his character Chutes & Ladders tries to absorb the verbiage of newcomer Fountainhead (Ben Euphrat) in an online chat room for crack addicts. As Fountainhead spouts a frothy, edgy aria demonstrating his gigantic privilege – being forced to drive a mere Mustang after damaging his Porsche in a crack-fueled bender – Lockett seems to let each new clause drain his soul a little more from his eyeballs. . His head is as hollow as a jack-o’-lantern as he responds with a single, perfect “What.” The. F-.”
Or take the camaraderie between cousins Yazmin (Lara Maria) and Elliot (Xander DeAngeles), who vibrate like only family can, mixing affectionate banter and whining with earnest, devastating rebuke — all while seeming ready to regress into childhood. at any time. Yazmin, after all, is one of the few people Elliot, a Navy vet, can trust, even as he hides the Iraqi ghost (Salim Razawi) that haunts him.
But too often, director Denise Blasor fails to capitalize on these strengths. In the show, which kicked off on Wednesday, March 23, you might find yourself trying to peel, with your eyes, the actors’ feet from their motionless forward-facing positions on the floor. A whole scene and the whole range of movements of the actors invite themselves, to then be ignored, rejected.
The result is that even beautifully written and acted scenes still shake. The performers look like expert trapeze artists who don’t know if their surroundings will catch up with them after their flip. When Yazmin and Elliott buy flowers for the funeral of his aunt and adoptive mother, they engage in the kind of free and deep conversation that is only possible between true intimates: about intellectual passion, about our obligations about ourselves and others, about ethnicity and class and how they fit separately and together in the world.
But the scene remains so tentative, its narrative aims and emotional peaks and troughs so shapeless, that its built-in pleasures crumble. Two people continue to talk; nothing happens. How is it possible that Yasmin is still nonchalantly shuffling flower brochures an entire scene later?
The actors are not at fault here. When Elliott piles confession upon confession, it’s not for lack of DeAngeles’ authenticity that you don’t always buy it. It’s that Blasor doesn’t provide a clear emotional rationale for why the play needs each successive scene, making the last quarter of the show in particular feel like a redundant farewell parade.
Still, there are plenty of joys to be had with this Pultizer Prize-winning Quiara Alegría Hudes of “In the Heights” fame. His portrayal of the bottom of addiction — when you could crawl across the carpet, no different than a beast, search for a crumb of a solution, or do the unspeakable on your loved ones — is flawless. She’s equally shrewd and compassionate with the unlikely family bonds forged by those in recovery, crossing age, race, and class lines.
With those who have seen you at your worst, even if they only know your screen names in a chat room, even if they have never heard your voice, you can both be comfortable and take risks in a way that might seem dangerous with someone else, even the biological family.
The fearsome actress Lisa Ramirez, whose storyline straddles the play’s two main worlds, between Yazmin and Elliott’s in-person life in Philadelphia and the online realm of crack addicts, stands out in these chat room scenes. She’s the web forum moderator, and she brings her whole heart to that role in a way that she doesn’t want or can’t do in other areas of her life.
Ramirez can reach out and take on another character’s burdens with just his words and expression; she resets the mood with just her tone and posture, the way sunlight and fresh air open up a dark, stale room.
I“Water by the spoonful”: Written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Directed by Denise Blasor. Until April 23. Two hours, 25 minutes. $30 to $100. San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., SF 415-677-9596. www.sfplayhouse.org