Addiction is as hot a topic now as it was in 2012 when Quiara Alegria Hudes won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, “Water by the Spoonful.” It may not be your number one topic, but do not turn away too quickly. Ms. Hudes pays as much attention to the issues of family, the burdens of returning veterans, and the delusions of the privileged amongst us who consider themselves immune to the quotidian stresses of making it America. She writes with wit and insight, handling character development for each of the six major roles with economy and depth.
“Water by the Spoonful” is the middle play of a trilogy, all of which can be seen in Los Angeles this February and March: “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue,” currently at the Kirk Douglas Theatre; and “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Each is written to be viewed independently.
That is the good part. Sadly, the current production at the Taper is beset with fumbles. For starters, the lead, Elliot (Sean Carvajal), a returning Iraqi War vet, is burdened with a poorly recovered leg wound, and haunted by a silent ghost of the first Iraqi he killed as a Marine. We are burdened by Carvajal’s voice which does not project, and by the Taper configuration which is a challenge for any portrayal of intimacy. There were times where one third of the audience was laughing, and almost total silence reigned in the rest of the house.
Elliot has been raised by an aunt, a legendary figure of goodness in the Puerto Rican community of Philadelphia. He is estranged from his mother. As the play begins, the aunt is dying and Elliot has devoted himself to her care, shelving his dreams of acting and working in a Subway. He is close to his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), an adjunct music professor at Swarthmore, who feels as out of place in the world as Elliot does. They share a yearning for an idealized vision of family.
The other main thread is a chat room for recovering addicts. Like most addiction programs it is based on the philosophy that addiction is never cured, one is always recovering; that only an addict can understand and confront the issues of another addict; that one must brutally face his own mistakes. The avatar for the site administrator is Haikumom (Luna Lauren Velez). She is adored and idolized by the other two members on stage: Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison). The latter two, while retaining their anonymity, dish out tough love to one another which leads each to take large, risky steps in their lives. A successful businessman wanders into the chat room under the telling avatar Fountainhead (Josh Braaten). Buff and full of himself based on his success in business, Fountainhead wilts under the take-no-prisoners style of chat room confrontation and fades away. Some time later he crawls back having failed in his ability to make recovery a DIY project. It is at this point that Hudes effectively weaves the two threads together.
Early in the February 11, opening night performance, time out was called for five minutes or more, due to “illness” of one of the actors. While the play proceeded without needing understudies there were several rough spots. Hopefully, director Lileana Blain-Cruz will pull it together for the rest of the run. It is a testimony to the strength of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ writing that “Water by the Spoonful” retains audience interest despite the weak direction and mismatch in the strength of the actors.