Dysfunctional relationships seem to be becoming more dysfunctional with each new play. Dysfunctional and disagreeable. Despairing and depressing. As presented in playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes’ “Water by the Spoonful”, however, each member of her random group is coping not with dysfunction, but with at least one relationship that is conducted at a great distance, both physically and emotionally. Moreover, they have something else in common: they are all recovering addicts.
“Water by the Spoonful” is the second play in Hudes’ “Elliot Trilogy”— three plays which the author claims can be seen individually, without reference to the other two. And this play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012. (An earlier play, “In the Heights,” for which Hudes wrote the book that was enriched by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s exuberant score, won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2008.)
“Water by the Spoonful” is a literal demonstration of the familiar cliche that it’s easier to discuss your personal concerns with a complete stranger than it is to confide in your friends. And so it is with the seven characters in “Water by the Spoonful.”
Identified by just their first names, or by quirky names that they might have acquired as they got to know each other better, they are Elliot, played by Sean Carvajal, Yazmin/Haikumom (Keren Lugo), Odessa (Gabrielle Made), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), Chutes and Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), and Professor Aman, a ghost, and a policeman, all played by Nick Massouh.
The play is set in 2009, and Eliot, the central character, a Marine, is back from Iraq with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a limp. He and the others, each with their own troubles, communicate by Internet from Philadelphia, San Diego, Japan, and Puerto Rico.
Sitting spread out across a sparsely furnished stage, the players come and go in their own separate worlds but are revealed as being online when they return to the stage and their names and photographs light up on an overhead screen.
The most distant “separate world” is inhabited by Orangutan, a young Japanese woman who was adopted and has gone to Japan to search for her biological parents. She communicates mostly with Chutes and Ladders, a lonely African American who counsels her with affection, which she responds to by urging him to come to Japan to be with her. Appalled, he reacts with anger, informing her that he is 50 years old “on a good day.” He also tells her, inexplicably, that he “wants every day to be Tuesday.” She, in turn, tells him that she is not looking for romance, but for a friend that she can have a close personal relationship with. “Maybe I’m normal,” she says.
Haikumom, the “site administrator,” is harsh and demanding, but she listens and offers pithy advice to the others. “Have an attitude of gratitude,” she tells them. But the conversations are suddenly interrupted by Fountainhead, who barges in and, uninvited begins to loudly enumerate his problems. At his wife’s request, he says, he went out one night to buy butter, ran into his drug dealer, and didn’t return home. “I smoke crack,” he explains, “but it’s not a psychological addiction and I want to quit. I used to make $300,000 a year, but now I’m a crackhead with no job.” At this point Chutes and Ladders interrupts to inquire sarcastically, “Can you teach me to be an asshole?”
As the conversations continue, the participants frequently speak of death. Several of them are dealing with dying relatives, including Elliot, who is directed by an indifferent doctor to help his dying sister by providing her with a spoonful of water every five minutes.
While this play might sound bleak, it is actually a moving and engaging history of a group of lonely people, each seeking a connection with a committed friend and trying to make it through life with a modicum of joy. Beautifully directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, each character presents his concerns with dignity and passion. And in the end, they succeed modestly, bonding together in warm, bantering relationships with people who once lived far far away.
“Water by the Spoonful” will continue this Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. through March 11 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue, in downtown Los Angeles. To purchase tickets for one of these last five performances, call (213) 628-2772 or online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.