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A Family's Troubled History Comes to Light in Water by the Spoonful

Mark Taper Forum brings the Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the stage.

Luna Lauren Vélez as Odessa in the Center Theatre Group production of Water by the Spoonful, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, at the Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Quiara Alegría Hudes's Elliot Trilogy, which focuses on a Puerto Rican family in Philadelphia and one son's post-military trauma, has been mounted at three theaters concurrently in Los Angeles. Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue previously played at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre; now, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Water by the Spoonful launches at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum, while The Happiest Song Plays Last is currently playing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Water by the Spoonful, on its own merits, is a lopsided play that tells two separate stories (though only one feels genuine and endearing).

In 2009, a dysfunctional family deals with the consequences of war and addiction. Elliot (Sean Carvajal), who suffers from physical and emotional trauma after fighting in the Iraq War, dreams of being an actor while also peddling submarine sandwiches. The woman who raised him has died, and he and his cousin, Yazmin (Keren Lugo), have to deal with the funeral arrangements. Elliot's biological mother, Odessa (Luna Lauren Vélez), leads a safe online space for recovering crack addicts. Though Odessa's past habit had isolated her from her family, she has become a strengthening force for her virtual community. But when the whole family converges, tragedy strikes.

Hudes's script cleverly captures the camaraderie, territorialism, and didacticism of the internet community. Unfortunately, because the script and Vélez's arresting performance make Odessa such a dynamic force, the scenes with Elliot and Yaz pale in comparison, with dialogue that is too on the nose and characters pontificating too often. As a result, there's a lack of empathy for the two cousins. Hudes uses a moment from the past to illustrate Elliot's disgust for Odessa.

However, because this moment is only discussed and not shown, it loses its fire. Considering that the play's title remarks on this incident in their past, one assumes Hudes wants to put us in Elliot's shoes. But with so much of the play's energy focused on Odessa, who emerges as the frail hero despite having been a disastrous mother, Elliot comes off as self-righteous, unforgiving, and downright cruel. While we're supposed to be rooting for Elliot, we find ourselves, emotionally, in Odessa's corner.

Director Lileana Blain-Cruz doesn't do much to help balance the two stories, leaving the Elliot-Yaz scenes devoid of the same vitality the audience experiences in the scenes among the recovering addicts. The scales are tipped even further out of favor with a clearly uncomfortable Carvajal playing Elliot. He shouts all his lines and never seems to embody the character. Vélez's performance is heartfelt, sad, yet hopeful. Even in her early scenes, she carries the weight of a character that always teeters between redemption and relapse. As the other chatroom participants, Josh Braaten, Bernard K. Addison, and Sylvia Kwan bring the humor, anger, and restlessness of living with addiction but not abandoning life.

Designer Adam Rigg's hodgepodge set attempts to portray too many locations including hotel rooms, a dilapidated apartment, and a rain forest in Puerto Rico. While visually intriguing, it leaves the audience perplexed, and the end result is unsatisfying.

Water by the Spoonful does not feed the audience's soul despite tackling very complex subject matter. Essentially two one-act plays smashed into each other, Hudes's ambition of tying the story to the characters from her other Elliot plays is an epic undertaking, but this particular play may have worked better had Odessa's family been minor characters in her universe and not people in which the author wanted the audience to invest.