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Review: A Poetic And Very Human Comedy

Feb. 23, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

“Water By The Spoonful,” Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Jan. 31-Mar. 11, 2018

In Brief: The second in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s three-play cycle is less potent and eloquent than the earlier "Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue," but still manages to deliver a Compassionate human comedy with a persuasive, emotional punch.

In Water By The Spoonful, dramatist Quiara Alegría Hudes continues her heartfelt study of the Ortiz family begun in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. This time she turns her attention to the lives of two characters who don’t appear in the first play and also introduces several engaging new ones.

Sean Carvajal, Luna Lauren Vélez

Six years after he left to fight in Iraq, Elliot Ortiz is living in Philadelphia with his Aunt Odessa, who raised him, and his adored cousin Yazmin. He was once a vigorous young soldier, filled with enthusiasm and expectation. Now he’s got a bad leg, injured in the war, and a lousy job in a sandwich shop a 30-minute commute from home where his friends won’t see him. They think he’s an aspiring actor. Indeed, he’s appeared on TV in a toothpaste commercial, his one claim to prove his potential.

Now we know what happened to Elliot, the central character in the first play. While Elliot again figures prominently in Water By The Spoonful, Hudes has more on her mind than the bad hand he has been dealt. Whereas the earlier work showed how warfare drained a grandfather, father, son and their families, this second production zeroes in on a varied group of family members and strangers struggling to overcome drug addiction.

"The plaintive beauty and transformational properties of dissonance in John Coltrane’s music...serves to illuminate and reinforce the play’s subtext."

Elliot’s aunt, Odessa, is the main character here. She ‘s been clean for seven years and now spends her days obsessively moderating an on-line chat room for recovering addicts, an eccentric, likable gang with colorful screen names like Orangutan, Chutes & Ladders, and Fountainhead. We also learn that Yazmin has become a college music professor and that Odessa raised Elliot after his mother, her sister, abandoned the family.

The playwright devotes the first act to establishing the new characters and fleshing out the lives of the old. The act seems flat, lackluster, a bit disappointing, compared to the full-out theatricality of the earlier play. Is it the fault of the writing or dull directing or earnest but uninspiring acting? Perhaps all three?

Sylvia Kwan, Luna Lauren Vélez, Bernard K. Addison are on-line chat buddies

Fortunately, the second act takes flight in a burst of vitality and emotion, as it builds toward its cathartic conclusion. Hudes is not only a fine American dramatist and keen observer of the human condition; she’s a poet, as well. And she loves music so much that she frequently weaves it metaphorically into her writing. Bach’s fugues figured in the first play of the cycle. In Water By The Spoonful, it’s the plaintive beauty and transformational properties of dissonance in John Coltrane’s music, as Yazmin explains in a college lecture, that serves to illuminate and reinforce the play’s subtext.

I wish that I could say that I found the acting, production design, and Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction as outstanding and stimulating as the writing. Sean Carvajal plays Elliot more broadly and with less charisma than Peter Mendoza, superb in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. Luna Lauren Vélez is fine as Aunt Odessa. More memorable are Sylvia Kwan as the spunky Orangutan and Bernard K. Addison as the tetchy Chutes & Ladders. Their encounter in Act Two is funny, tender, and just terrific.

The trilogy’s final installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens this weekend at The Los Angeles Theatre Center. Watch for my review next week.

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