Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Water by the Spoonful
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Lara Maria and Xander DeAngeles
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
I don't suppose I should be surprised that Philip Larkin's (sort of) famous poem "This Be The Verse" has come to my mind more than once when experiencing a powerful family drama, such as Quiara Alegría Hudes's Water by the Spoonful, which opened this week at San Francisco Playhouse. Larkin's poem came to mind because its first line ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do.") applies here. In spades. For the Ortiz family, especially Elliot (Xander DeAngeles), has seen no small amount of pain–both inflicted upon them and created by them.

The play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and it's easy to see why. Hudes plays her cards close to her chest, parceling out details of the family's life that draw the audience into the drama slowly and carefully, pulling us all inexorably into the joys and tragedies of this family of Puerto Rican immigrants. Each layer is pulled away one at a time, like the proverbial onion. As with an actual onion, one layer might be brown and rotting while the next is revealed to be crisp and shiny.

So it is here. Elliot, a veteran honorably discharged due to injuries sustained while on duty in Iraq, is trying to make his way as an actor, but his only gig thus far has been a toothpaste commercial where his brilliant smile won him the part, but also hides his pain: from the war; from his current struggles; and most especially from the tragedies of his childhood. As Elliot, Xander DeAngeles is astounding, able to project anger, sorrow and gentleness–almost in the same moment. His is an electrifying performance, one you never want to look away from.

In the opening moments, Elliot discovers that the aunt who raised him is near death, and that the family is awaiting his arrival at the hospital before they pull the plug on her ventilator. When he and his cousin Yazmin (Lara Maria) debate what flowers to get for the funeral, the discussion brings home the financial stress the family is under. As much as they'd like to spring for the arrangements that echo Aunt Ginny's garden, Yazmin's teaching job and Elliot's gig making sandwiches at Subway simply won't cut it.

Sadly, though, the extended family has bigger problems. Odessa (Lisa Ramirez), another Ortiz family member (whose connection is only revealed in act two), is working to atone for some of the family sins (especially her own) by serving as the moderator of a chat room for recovering crack addicts. Odessa let her own family down many years before, and now she seems determined to create–and love–a family she creates for herself. These include people we meet who are identified primarily by their screen names: Chutes&Ladders (Dorian Lockett), an IRS agent; Fountainhead (Ben Euphrat), a well-to-do tech executive; and Orangutan (a brilliant Sango Tajima), who was adopted as an infant by an American family, but has returned to Japan to find her roots.

Director Denise Blasor has done a serviceable job of moving the action forward and establishing where in space and time the characters find themselves. Fortunately, she is best at this in dreamlike sequences where Elliot is haunted by an experience in Iraq. (Although Hudes never clearly shows us why this particular incident is so upsetting to Elliot that it possesses him to such a degree.) In less capable hands, this could easily be confusing. Unfortunately, she is let down by Catalina Niño's slapdash set design, which looks like something from a high school production; with its papier-maché tree, thrift store furnishings, and seemingly pointless drapes that I imagine she felt evoked Caribbean waters, the set is an epic fail.

Despite the fact that this schlock set is staring us in the face at all times, the cast, thankfully, is skilled enough and powerful enough that we can forget the environment and focus on the characters they have created for us. Lisa Ramirez's Odessa is a heartrending portrayal of an addict who knows a relapse is always just one bad decision away. Her ability to express both searing emotional pain and sincere empathy is a wonder to behold; there are times she makes you want to rush onto the stage and pull her into your arms in a healing embrace. And Sango Tajima, who was so delightful in Marin Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare in Love, is just as charming and funny and clever here. Her Orangutan provides much of the comic relief that keeps Water by the Spoonful from becoming a full-time tearjerker, but her more tender moments are just as skillfully performed.

As Larkin put it, families can fuck you up, but they can also lift you up. And so it is here, for when Hudes finally gets to the innermost layer of the Ortiz family's emotional onion, we are delighted to find that familial love is embedded deep in its core.

Water by the Spoonful runs through April 23, 2022, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$100, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.