Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy, which begins with Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue, now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre, continues at the Mark Taper Forum in Water by the Spoonful, which opened last week. Together the three plays, which conclude with The Happiest Song Plays Last, opening this coming weekend at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, tell the story of Elliot, a Marine who serves in the Iraq war at a young age. Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue focuses on his first deployment in 2003 at age 19, and Water by the Spoonful picks up six years later, in 2009.
Elliot (Sean Carvajal), who suffered a serious leg injury during his time in the service, now spends his days as a Subway sandwich artist and wannabe actor in Philadelphia, using his veteran status and endearing demeanor to land a couple commercial roles. He has aspirations of moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting more seriously, but recently his life has been focused on caring for his mother, Ginny, who has terminal cancer. While Water By the Spoonful can certainly stand on its own and does not require patrons to have seen Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue to comprehend the story, this was the one area where I found the context meaningful. Ginny, who passes away early in this second installment, is a vivid character in the first, and having spent that time with her strengthened the emotional impact of her offstage demise. Elliot leans on his cousin, Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a put-together professor going through a divorce, as he makes funeral arrangements and is forced to confront family members he has long avoided.
In a parallel storyline with a connection to Elliot that is only revealed at the end of act one, we meet three recovering cocaine addicts who know each other only through an online forum. HaikuMom (Luna Lauren Vélez) is the site moderator, a seemingly zen woman with a mysterious past who offers inspirational poems daily. Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) is a twenty-something who has recently traveled to Japan, her birthplace, and is trying to reconcile her ongoing recovery with her desire to learn potentially difficult information about her past. Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison) is an older man who fills his days working as a corporate drone while trying to summon the courage to reconnect with his estranged son. The discussion grows heated when a new user, Fountainhead (Josh Braaten) joins the group. He leads a seemingly privileged life with a high-paying corporate job and a family. He is brand new to the recovery journey, and his arrogance initially tests the patience of his fellow addicts.
Directed here by Lileana Blain-Cruz, this play is a bit of a blank slate as written. Approximately half the action occurs on the internet. The various characters each appear in their own mini-sets, not addressing one another, and their avatars are projected onto the stage above. Given what a challenging concept this is to portray onstage, their scenes are surprisingly effective and emotional. Perhaps this is why it works in act one when the action cuts to scenes with Elliot and Yazmin occurring in real life—even though their connection to the other characters is unknown for a while, the shift to face-to-face interactions is welcome, making the play feel balanced. Once the pieces do fall into place, and the characters slowly converge into one story, everything is better for it. The most memorable moments occur in act two, and each storyline reaches a satisfying conclusion, beautifully illustrating the many different ways meaningful human connection can manifest, whether in cyberspace or the real world.
Water by the Spoonful won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and it is easy to see why. The characters are complicated and their specific shared plight is not necessarily immediately sympathetic, but most are so humanized you cannot help but feel connected to them, even those we only know by a forum username. We only learn two characters’ real names in the play’s final scenes, but it doesn’t matter. Ironically, it is Elliot and Yazmin who would most benefit from further fleshing out. Carvajal’s Elliot is strikingly different from the way the same character was portrayed in Soldier’s Fugue. While the various actors playing this role should not be expected to interpret the character identically, this version seemed less realized, and occasionally incongruous with the established backstory. A plot point about Elliot’s own demons feels almost like an afterthought, an attempt to tie him to the larger themes that isn’t ultimately necessary. Yazmin exists primarily as a sounding board for Elliot, and does not otherwise have much of a place in the story. Throwaway lines about her marital woes and glimpses of her profession and hobbies do not a three-dimensional character make, and through no fault of Lugo she feels the least like a real person even after two hours with her.
It is truly the characters who populate the recovery forum who make this story what it is, and there could easily be an entire different play focused only on them that would be effective in its own right. HaikuMom is the most compelling character, and her shocking personal history provides the most viscerally memorable moment, a revelation that illuminates the meaning behind the play’s title and is sure to stick with audience members for some time. Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders have their own subplot that proves to be the most charming and, ultimately, satisfying storyline, and will ring true for anyone who has ever made a friend thanks to the internet. I look forward to seeing how the trilogy concludes in The Happiest Song Plays Last, but Water by the Spoonful is more than strong enough to stand on its own, a simultaneously dark and hopeful tale of lost souls searching for common ground.
Water by the Spoonful runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through March 11th. The running time is two hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here. This marks the first time all three parts of the Elliot Trilogy are onstage at the same time in the same city— for tickets to Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue click here, and for The Happiest Song Plays Last click here.