Water by the Spoonful
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Mark Taper Forum
Through March 11
Though Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trio of plays is called the “Elliot trilogy,” Water by the Spoonful, isn’t really about Elliot.
The middle work in the triad, it’s a stark change from its predecessor, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, currently playing at the Kirk Douglas in Culver City. Here, Elliot (Sean Caravajal) is no longer pivotal; instead, he’s a supporting character who takes a backseat to the members of a Narcotics Anonymous online support group.
Hudes has a background in music, and it shows in her work. While A Soldier’s Fugue, which interweaves the stories of three generations, is structured like a fugue, Water by the Spoonful plays more like the point and counterpoint of a melody, though they don’t come together harmoniously. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, though; Elliot’s cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a music professor and possibly a stand-in for Hudes herself, gives a college lecture on the importance of dissonance early on in the play.
The main storyline follows Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez), a moderator on a forum/chatroom for recovering crack addicts. She oversees communication between herself and a couple regulars, Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison). Orangutan is young and impetuous, and has just moved to Japan, while Chutes&Ladders lives a very ordinary life working for the IRS in L.A. They all get along well and support each other, but their ecosystem is disrupted when Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), a rich white guy who thinks he has it all together, joins their group. Because he’s full of ego and in denial about his addiction, the other recovering addicts don’t rush to welcome him with open arms.
Meanwhile, Elliot, who has been honorably discharged from the Marines following his service in Iraq, is working at a Subway in Philadelphia while trying to make it as an actor. His cousin and close friend Yazmin is dealing with her own divorce, but the priorities of both quickly change when Elliot’s mother Ginny dies. As they prepare for the funeral and everything after, Haikumom — who is actually Ginny’s sister, Odessa — learns of Ginny’s death.
Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction, the work here feels more assured than in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. The actors seem more at home in their characters, despite a few line flubs here and there. But once again, Hudes’ writing outshines the performances. Also, there’s a palpable sense of alienation in this play, since the characters often talk to each other through computer screens and face out towards the audience, rather than speaking directly with each other. That distancing is only furthered by Adam Rigg’s scenic design. The stage of the Taper is not huge, but it is so sparsely dressed that it seems as if a vast expanse is swallowing up the actors.
The story is centered around the issue of addiction, and while it’s refreshing that the topic isn’t handled like a maudlin movie-of-the-week, there’s an emotional resonance missing to the production: the show just doesn’t pack the poignant punch that the script deserves. The beats intended to move the audience and make us examine our attitudes about addicts and addiction are there, but they fail to land. Some of this is due to pacing problems in the second act — it runs longer than the first one and fakes out an ending about three different times. The problem is intensified by the concurrent action that takes place towards the end, which makes it tough to figure out which story you’re supposed to be watching: the one where the characters are talking, or the one where they’re going through something difficult silently.
As with Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Hudes writes beautiful prose, and there are a few moments that echo back to that play, with minor references that add color and context to the world on stage. That context is particularly helpful for understanding Elliot, who’s the least-defined and perhaps the least sympathetic among the character.s Knowing his past from A Soldier’s Fugue helps the audience feel for him here, but for someone coming in cold, it might be tempting to wonder why there’s a whole trilogy built around this small, sad figure.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through Mar. 11. Centertheatregroup.org. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with a 20-minute intermission.