In the age of connectedness where telephones are computers and Twitter and Facebook allow instantaneous electronic conversations, the chat room, a central feature of playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning drama, Water by the Spoonful, seemed to me at first a relic of the 1990s calling to mind green screen CRTs and 1200 baud telephone line connections. I was not then and am not now a chat room person. My typing is too slow and terrible. But a quick Google search proved to me that chat rooms of various kinds are alive and thriving.
In her complex, affecting drama, Ms. Hudes interweaves the lives of a family of ethnic Puerto Ricans at a moment of extreme stress—the passing of a beloved, saintly mother and aunt—and those of a small group of chat room members, recovering crack heads, who strive to help each other keep sober on a daily, hourly or moment to moment basis.
Elliot (Sean Carvajal), an honorably discharged Marine literally haunted by his experiences in Iraq and suffering still from the wounds he received, has had some success as an actor—a tooth paste commercial on a Spanish language channel—but works making sandwiches at a Subway restaurant. He is close to his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), an adjunct professor of music and together they struggle to deal with the family crisis.
The chat room group is led by the calming presence of “Haikumom,” the online handle of Elliot’s aunt, Odessa (Luna Lauren Vélez). She strives to keep the far-flung participants civil in their electronic conversations and strictly on the path to recovery. “Chutes&Ladders” (Bernard K. Addison), is an IRS apparatchik in Los Angeles. “Orangutan” (Sylvia Kwan), an Asian girl adopted and raised by Americans, has returned to Japan in a quest for roots. They are joined by “Fountainhead “(Josh Braaten), a wealthy, ex-computer entrepreneur who first lurks, then joins the chat with an arrogant self-serving post that brings howls of derision from the others. How the two families are relevant to each other and become entwined is the cunning construct of the play.
Smartly directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, the acting ensemble keeps the pace brisk. The production is well served with a flexible scenic design by Adam Rigg that allows for rapid changes of locale with the movement of set pieces on and off mostly managed by the cast. The excellent, fluid lighting design by Yi Zhao enhances the action with deft lighting cues that center on the action. The sound design of Jane Shaw includes iconic selections from John Coltrane’s discography and adds greatly to the overall effect of the play. The projection design by Hannah Wasileski reinforces the idea of the chat room with graphics that fit the handles of the participants and features a green dot below their images to indicate when they are online. It’s a nice bit of wonkiness. Costumes design by Raquel Barreto support both character and action.
Superbly produced by Center Theatre Group, Water by the Spoonful, the second play in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot Trilogy, is a vibrant play of ideas, emotion and heart, leavened with abundant humor. It runs through March 11 at the Mark Taper Forum.
The first play in the trilogy, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, continues through February 25 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, and the third play of the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens on February 22 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and runs through March 19.