In the core story, a tragic secret is festering within a dysfunctional Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia. Iraqi vet Elliot (Miles Gaston Villanueva) — an aspiring actor and Subway sandwich shop employee who’s suffering from PTSD — and his more successful cousin, Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela), a jazz-loving music instructor, come together to deal with the sudden death of their beloved aunt. The aunt raised Elliot because his mother, Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), was a crackhead.
In the parallel story, Odessa is the tough-minded administrator of an online chat room for “crack addicts who don’t want to be crack addicts anymore”; they know her as “Haiku Mom” for the little inspirational poems she writes for them.
“Orangutan,” a caustic 31-year-old Japanese-American (a marvelously deadpan Anna Ishida) currently teaching in Japan, and Chutes & Ladders (Anthony J. Haney, a deceptively jolly, middle-aged African-American pencil-pusher in San Diego) are longtime members, and Fountainhead (Patrick Kelly Jones), who, like Haiku Mom, lives in Philly, is a squirrely newcomer.
The chat room characters, all anonymous and faceless to one another, remain stationary on various levels of the multi-level set, cleverly designed by Erik Flatmo with projections by Erik Scanlon (some of which are effective and some so blurry as to be distracting) and deliver their lines out to the audience.
As presentational as the concept is, the sense of interaction is palpable. Lonely and needy, they parry and thrust, insult and provoke.
Their despair, their humor, their sarcasm, their mutual affection (Chutes & Ladders calls Orangutan “Little Monkey” and frets when she goes offline for three days) are captivating, thanks both to Hudes’ wit and the well-cast actors, directed by Leslie Martinson with attention to the comic elements as well as the emotional nuances.
It’s an uplifting look at our seemingly detached Internet era. Oddly enough, the in-the-flesh scenes between the two cousins seem more presentational, even artificial. In several overlong dialogues, Hudes self-consciously strains for humor and pathos, and the actors — with Villanueva playing a theatrically exaggerated character type — tend to perform to the audience rather than relating believably to each other.
Ultimately, it’s the chat room characters, and the way their stories unfold, that feels most poignant and most true.
Water by the Spoonful
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 2
Tickets: $19 to $74
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org