“Water by the Spoonful”: Play overruns with compassion
Scene from "Water by the Spoonful." From left, Josh Braaten, Sean Carvajal, Keren Lugo and Luna Lauren Vélez | Craig Schwartz

LOS ANGELES — For the first time ever, the three plays that comprise an epic family story collectively known as the “Elliot Trilogy” are appearing in the same city, running from January 27 through March 19. The playwright is Quiara Alegría Hudes, born in 1977, best known for writing the book to “In the Heights,” the hit Broadway musical with lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue” is playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City (a theatergoer’s study guide can be found here). Premiering in 2006, it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. Hudes based the lead role on a cousin who joined the Marines not long after George W. Bush started his disastrous war in Iraq (remember those WMDs?). In this play Elliot’s father, who served in Vietnam, and his grandfather, who served in Korea, form part of his military DNA.

Fast forward to the middle play, “Water by the Spoonful,” which Hudes based on another cousin who had suffered addiction problems. In this play, characters from the first segment of the Elliot story collide with a ragtag gaggle of four recovering addicts who meet in an online chatroom; as an Asian-American woman, an African-American man, a Puerto Rican woman from Philadelphia, and a financially successful white businessman, they represent something of a cross-section of America. This play premiered in 2011 and won Hudes the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. It is now at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles.
In the final play, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” Elliot gets on with his life as the summation to this three-part coming-of-age saga. It is playing at the Latino Theater Company in downtown L.A.

Born of a Puerto Rican mother and a Jewish father, Hudes is a multi-talented creative force: a pianist and composer, lyricist and playwright. Knowing music as well as she does, she chose a particular musical form or genre for each of the trilogy plays: The Bach preludes and fugues she played growing up for the first play; John Coltrane’s dissonant free jazz for the second; and Puerto Rican mountain folk music (música jíbara) for the third. Perhaps, to extend the musical analogy, these plays function like the four operas in Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen,” which can be seen separately or, ideally, in conjunction with the others.

“I really tried to write the three trilogy plays as a musical score, to feel triumphant at times, to feel pensive at times, to feel forte and piano, and to have all the dynamics you would want out of a great symphony piece or a great mix tape,” Hudes says in the Mark Taper Forum program.

Water is set in 2009, six years after Elliot (Sean Carvajal) left for his harrowing tour of Iraq. A playgoer infers this, but from the first play we would know that he almost lost a leg there; he’s had several operations on it and walks with a permanent limp. He developed a painkiller pill problem there and has struggled to overcome it. His frequent emotional outbursts indicate that he is deeply troubled not only by PTSD from his Iraq experience, but from a hard childhood with his crack-addicted mother Odessa, known online as Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez). Fortunately Odessa’s superwoman sister Ginny, who appears in the first play but not in this, was able to step in and raise Elliot. Part of the action in Water revolves around Ginny’s death.

Elliott’s cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo) is the calm center of a play with a multitude of emotional tornados. She is a teacher of music appreciation who uses 1964 and 1965 free jazz LPs by John Coltrane, where “the notes are all equal,” to illustrate how important it is to listen for the dissonances if we ever want to feel the gratification of harmony—perhaps it might be better to say if we want to earn the harmony. We gather from her reassurances that dissonance is useful and productive, and that the chaos surrounding these characters will eventually right itself into some semblance of peace.

Odessa hosts an online crack addicts support group whose other members include, according to their internet names, Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), born to Japanese parents, but within weeks adopted by American parents and raised in rural Maine. She has taken off to Hokkaido, Japan, to detox, and perhaps meet her birth parents. There is also Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), African-American employee at the IRS (“I’m fifty years old on a good day”) who has a severe lack of self-confidence and acts ragefully toward his support group. He has had a difficult time reconciling with his son, and is sorrowful not to know his three grandchildren at all. The latest member to join the group is Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), who fits the egotistical template we see in Ayn Rand’s libertarian novel of that name.

Three minor characters are played by Nick Massouh.

The first few scenes of the play are a challenge to follow, as we do not know the relationship between the Elliot set of characters and the crack addict group. But like a living Venn diagram, the circles start overlapping until we see that these two communities are indeed connected by only one degree of separation. Returning to the musical motif, Yazmin at one point recalls how an early teacher of hers advised her to play on the piano simultaneous chords of F# major with her left hand and C major with her right. The sound is not harmonious at first, and yet, like Wagner’s famous Tristan chord, it opens up possibilities that have never been explored before.

Over the course of two substantial acts, we even relax into the setting of various scenes in such disparate places as Philadelphia, San Diego, Japan and Puerto Rico.

Elliot centers the action of the play, but each of the characters goes through their own “hero’s journey,” with a little help from their friends, before the final curtain. In time, as promised, the dissonances start dissolving until by the end there is the cathartic sense that if things will never be perfect, they will be better.

The unit set by Adam Rigg at first looks like an exploded diagram of a dated IKEA-furnished house or large apartment, with various rooms delineated as office, living room, kitchen, bathroom. In time we see that this multi-functional design is capable of accommodating a large variety of settings, including the locales from which the internet users communicate, Narita airport in Japan, a funeral home, a coffee shop, and I kind of hate to give it away, but also El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico with a real live waterfall worth the price of admission alone! (I happened to stay afterward for a talkback with the audience and it took four men half an hour to clean up all that water and restore the stage.)

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has taken a complex, diffuse script and wrestled it into order. The central metaphor is keeping a young child alive with frequent (five minutes apart) tiny doses of a spoonful of water. Hudes writes in such a way that however exasperated or troubled or baffled we are by the characters’ behavior, we get that frequent spoonful of information or advancement in the storyline that keeps us interested in what comes next. An audience feels like they have worked to appreciate this play, and the payoff is palpable.

Water by the Spoonful plays at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012, through March 11. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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