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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Water by the Spoonful

Rise and shine, kiddos, the rooster's a-crowin, it's a beautiful day to be sober.— Haikumom, AKA Odessa Ortiz.
water by spoonful
Luna Lauren Velez (Photo credit Craig Schwartz).
Late in the second act of Water by the Spoonful, after a lot of seriously troubled water has flowed under some extremely rickety bridges, a 24-year-old ex-Marine named Elliot Ortiz offers a chilling and all-too-human confession about wishing ill on a family member. Somebody has been hurt, he believes himself responsible, but is not remorseful. The admission may be cathartic to Elliot, but the person who hears the confession gives him tacit dispensation: "Go. Go and don't you ever look back," urges Yazmin, the cousin who has spent a lifetime having Elliot's back (and vice versa).

Elliot's admission is surprising; Yazmin's reply is not. Compassion and forgiveness is how this family rolls. Second chances are woven into the fabric of Quiara Alegra Hudes's Pulitzer Prize-winning play stitch by meticulous stitch.

So is protectiveness. The world may be a big nasty place, but people look out for each other whether they are blood kin like Yazmin, Elliott and their aunt Odessa or whether they are addicts in an online recovery chatroom, some of whom are willing literally to cross the globe to come to the aid of a person they have never previously met face-to-face. Spoonfulthe second in Hudes's Elliot trilogy, is a fascinating play with many thematic entrance point and multiple subjects to ponder post-curtain. Taking its musical inspiration from the John Coltrane "A Love Supreme," the play is as tangled as a jazz riff, until it isn't. Ultimately people need people., Hudes is saying, Fair enough

In Lileana Blain-Cruz production at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum, the play's general amity occasionally feels a bit one-sided, particularly when it comes to the play's supposed hero. Sean Carvajal's snarly pissed-off Elliot takes the stage like he is building toward that 11th hour revelation and will take down anybody in his path who prevents him from getting there. For a man who is supposed to be a golden boy, coming across as a bastard is a risky proposition, and it works slightly against the overall satisfaction of the Taper's production.

Elliot, A Solider's Fugue, the first play of the trilogy ( reviewed here and finishing a run at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre and recently), bifurcated the experiences of Elliot, his father and grandfather. Spoonful opens up the Ortiz world even further, taking its audience outside of family and into a quite different but no less dysfunctional clan.

It's 2009 and Elliot is back in his native Philadelphia, impatient at his job making sandwiches at Subway and being haunted by some ghosts from his experiences in Iraq. The death of his mother Ginny &emdash; by all accounts the family's bedrock &emdash; throws everything into chaos for Elliot and Yaz (Keren Lugo), a divorced music professor seven years Elliot's senior. There will be funeral expenses, and the cousins expect Ginny's estranged sister Odessa (Luna Lauren Velez) to contribute. Odessa was Elliot's birth mother, but Ginny raised him when Odessa's life fell apart, so the cousins' decision to force Odessa to chip in for funeral flowers is their way of imparting family justice.

She may have bailed on her blood kin, but Odessa takes care of a completely different family. As Haikumom, the site administrator of a chatroom for recovering crack addicts, Odessa dispenses sunshine, occasional tough love, and, yes, daily inspirational haikus to a diverse community of people who are as broken as she. Their ranks include Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan), a brash young ESL teacher in Japan and Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), a fiftysomething paper pusher for the IRS living humbly and under rigid recovery rules in San Diego.

Positively everybody is protective of Haikumom, and none of the regulars take kindly when a new guy called Fountainhead (Josh Braaten) logs in. A rich tech entrepreneur who brags of having one day being clean, Fountainhead gets big-time trolling from Orangutan and Chutes&Ladders. Seeing that they're both in Philadelphia (albeit from different parts class-wise), Odessa offers to meet him for coffee and he'll ultimately repay that kindness big time.

The Ortizes don't know about Odessa's Haikumom good deeds any more than the addicts know about Haikumom real life, although her two lives are fated to intersect. Nearly everyone in this play has a past, a secret, a wound ripe for salting. When characters enter the chatroom, their icon is projected onto the back wall of Adam Rigg's stage which is otherwise left largely open with sections of walls and furniture carved out for locales in San Diego, Japan, Philadelphia and Puerto Rico. The online back and forth basically feels like two or more people talking directly to each other, and the rainfall effect that closes the play is fast becoming the overused stage special effect of choice.

For all their flaws and foibles, Hudes's characters are thoroughly engaging, and the company members flesh them out splendidly. Addison's gruffness and self-effacement ping-pongs against the youthful needling of Kwan's Orangutan. The characters may not realize it, but, despite a 30-year age gap and different cultural backgrounds, Chutes&Ladders and Orangutan essentially have the same sense of humor. Braaten slickly blends Fountainhead's mixture of privilege and vulnerability. The man may not know how to be a recovering addict, but he'll learn.

Though every bit of Spoonful looks toward the younger generation passing the family-maintaining torch to Elliot and Yaz, this is also Odessa's play. Velez nails the charisma more adeptly than the brokenness. Although the character is supposed to live practically in destitution, with her outdated (but still functioning) computer her only lifeline, we don't really see the squalor or the desperation, and the character's spiral seems to come out of nowhere.

Mama Ginny, who was a character in Soldier's Fugue does not appear in Spoonful although she is in many ways this play's inspiration. Without her, there is no telling how Elliot Ortiz will end up, although the title of play 3 The Happiest Song Plays Last (set to open at L.A.'s Latino Theatre Company), might give a clue. We may invest less in this Spoonful's Elliot, but in a play this compassionate and well written, it's hard not to embrace the hope.

Other Curtainup reviews in the trilogy Water by the Spoonful in New York andThe Happiest Song Plays Last

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Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Cast: Bernard K. Addison, Josh Braaten Sean Carvajal, Sylvia Kwan, Keren Lugo, Nick Massouh, Luna Lauren VĂ©lez
Set Design: Adam Rigg
Costume Design: Raquel Barreto
Lighting Design: Yi Zhao
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Projection Design: Hannah Wasileski
Dramaturg: Joy Meads
Production Stage Manager: David S. Franklin
Plays through March 11, 2018 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772,
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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