The Agony of the Soldier Returned from the Wars

Culture Watch
tags: Bruce Chadwick, theater, Off-Broadway, Iraq, veterans, drug addiction


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Water by the Spoonful
Second Stage Theater
305 W. 43rd Street
New York, N.Y.

Elliot, a hulking war vet, has been back from Iraq for two years. He's still trying to find himself as he struggles to rejoin his deeply dysfunctional and drug addicted family in Philadelphia. He faces many of the same problems that vets faced coming home from Vietnam, Korea, all the way back to the American Revolution. He served his country honorably, but suffered physically and mentally. He arrived back a hero, but not to a hero’s welcome.

Elliot is the centerpiece of Water by the Spoonful, the new play by Quiara Alegria Hudes, the author of the successful In the Heights. It's a confusing play that rambles through act one in fits and starts, and long stretches of boredom, before finding its way in the middle of act two. That;s is when Elliot lets down his warrior macho and emotional shield. That is when we see the torment he has lived through in Iraq. He was wounded several times and became addicted to pain killers during his recovery. He also has nightmares about the first man he killed in Iraq -- the man’s ghost keeps getting off the ground to struggle with him.

The world Elliot came back to is a mess. His mother is a drug addict who runs a website for drug abusers. His cousin just got divorced and is adrift. His aunt died and he has to prepare the funeral.

There's a marvelous character called Chutes and Ladders (after the children’s game) who talks to drug abusers on the drug abuse website. He tries to hook up with an angry young Japanese girl, under the screen name Orangutang, who leaves America for her homeland to find her birth parents.

Other drug users drift in and out of the story, like “Fountainhead,” now finishing up his second year as a crack addict. All of these people intermingle with each other, but do not work with each other to help move along the story. Director Davis McCallum needs to sharpen the focus of his tale.

The character of Elliot, the returning soldier, needs expansion. This play is a fine opportunity for playwright Hudes to probe into Elliot’s problems, but she does not. Why does he keep having his recurring nightmare? Does he go to a VA hospital for help? What do social services do to help him? Is he on medication? What about his war buddies? What happened to them? Does he turn to them for help? Hudes needs to spend more time in the play discussing these issues.

The strongest part of the play is Hudes’ scorching depiction of the essential hollowness of online interaction. Her cnaracters type away mightily online but have real problems handling relationships with real people in the real world.

The acting in the play is decent, especially since people are playing to each other, the audience and the chat roomsall at the same time. Armando Riesco is wonderful as the rough, lumbering Elliot and other good performances are by Liza Colon-Zayas as Odessa, Zabryna Guevara as Yaz, Bill Heck as Fountainhead and Ryan Shams as the ghost

Frankie Faison, as Chutes and Ladders, and Sue Jean Kim as Orangutan steal the show as the talkative, vulnerable chat room couple who finally meet at the end of the play.

In the end, Water by the Spoonful is a bit disappointing, not for the story on stage, but for the more substantive story about returning GIs that might have been told. This play won the Pulitzer Prize last year and should be more emotionally fulfilling. We need water by the whole glass, not the spoonful.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Second Stage Theater. Sets: Neil Patel; Costumes: Esosa; Lighting: Russell Champa; Sound, Joshua Schmidt; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Fight Director: Thomas Schall. The play is directed by Davis McCallum.

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