- OnStage Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic
Latin music sets the mood for Quiara Algeria Hudes emotional journey of Water by the Spoonful. It’s the second story of a trilogy about struggling with addiction and how it can affect one’s social and family life. Each character in Water By the Spoonful has obstacles, flaws and struggles that they must confront in order to move forward.
The 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz offers two main plots that intertwine on the clever set design by Adam Ring. The sparse open room with eclectic furniture, a small kitchen, and two different types of swivel office chairs, that also become different computer stations, as large screens illuminate above the set with screen names that include Haikumom (Luna Lauren Velez), Fountainhead (Josh Braaten), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), and Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison). Throughout the play we watch as they type their name to reveal how they each share a common denominator - they are all crack cocaine addicts who frequent Haikumom’s online recovery support group to seek and maintain sobriety.
We learn Orangutan is a recently sober 26 year old college graduate who moved to Japan to seek sobriety and possibly meet her birth mother. This unknown woman gave her away before she was adopted by an American family. Orangutan is active in the chat room and longs for a real relationship without one consisting of letters and numbers on a keyboard. Her closest screen friend is Chutes&Ladders, a black “50 years old on a good day” man. He was the the “kid who ate crayons” and now works at the IRS as a paper pusher. “Life is messy and disappointing,” even though he has remained clean for 10 years. With a strained relationship with his son, he is too afraid to reach out to him for fear of rejection, so he keeps “staying in a box” and not venturing out of his comfort zone.
Chutes&Ladders pours salt into newcomer Fountainhead’s wounds, making him face his successful businessman facade. He’s a crack head with a wife who has no idea. Chutes&Ladders is brutally honest about how Fountainhead “is in for the fight of his life, if he really wants to get sober.” To gain sobriety, one must “pursue feeling good, no matter how bad it feels.” Each day, “staying clean is like tap dancing on a mine field.”
Odessa/Haikumom cleans toilets as a janitor and seeks redemption from a horrific event that happened while she was a crack addict. Committed to sobriety, she creates a recovery chat room. As the site administrator, her mission is to save others and enforce peace among the strong personalities entering her online community.
When her sister dies, the lead character Elliot (Sean Carvajal) comes back into her life seeking financial help for a proper burial for his aunt. This isn’t the first time Carvajal played this role. He starred in the off-Broadway production in 2016, and looks thrilled to be in Los Angeles bringing Elliott to life once again.
We learn after intermission what “Water by the Spoonful” means. Elliott tells the story to his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo) of how he and his little sister were so sick that they couldn’t hold anything down. When their mother Odessa/Haikumom took them to the doctor, he told her to give each child a spoonful of water every five minutes. As a crack head, Odessa couldn’t do it and Elliott’s baby sister died from dehydration. Elliot was found by Social Services, who took him away to live with Odessa’s sister.
Elliot is an abuser too, not crack, but opiates. After an honorable discharge from the Marine’s and four leg surgeries, Doctors give him as much pain medication as he wants to help with his injury and slight limp. He also takes it to block out the war ghost (Nick Massouh) who haunts his nightmares repeatedly throughout the play, saying “Can I please have my passport back” in Arabic. Massouh is versatile, also playing Professor Aman who interprets the war ghost’s haunting demand, and a policeman in a Japanese train station.
Music plays a big part in this show and Yazmin enters as a college music teacher, lecturing to her class (the audience) about John Coltrane’s deeply spiritual work, A Love Supreme. As one of Coltrane's masterpieces, the song resonates his personal troubles, and struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Throughout the play we see how drug abuse leads to isolation, poverty and tears families apart. We learn how community, family, forgiveness, and courage help in the recovery process.
The play ends with Yazmin helping Elliot with their aunt’s dying wish, to have her ashes spread in Puerto Rico. It’s a moving scene as the two stand above the set in a lush Puerto Rican rain forest. With the help of lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound designer Jane Shaw and projection designer Hannah Wasileski, one can just imagine a waterfall, as mist and later water rushes down and sweep the ashes away.
Since this is the first show I’ve see in the Elliot trilogy, I’m not sure why the war ghost is constantly repeating “Can I please have my passport back.” It seems every character is seeking something, and at the end, come to terms with reality and finding oneself.
With the damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Mark Taper Forum had a sign displayed titled Give To A Good Cause! The Hurricane Relief Campaign Pa’ Arriba Puerto Rico is a campaign that Elliot Trilogy playwright Quiara Algeria Hudes supports. Pa’ Arriba is raising money to provide survival supplies and adopt service organizations in Puerto Rico, with a focus on the towns of Vieques, Arecibo and Utuado. They are helping families whose homes were leveled in the storm to relocate to Philadelphia. You can donate to
Photo: Keren Lugo as Yazmin and Sean Carvajal as Elliot. Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times