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Quiara Alegría Hudes, post-Pulitzer, eyes the next chapter

Her prize-winning 'Water by the Spoonful' is the second play in a trilogy. She's readying the third as 'Spoonful' heads to New York. But: Hey, L.A.!

June 10, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes' play "Water by the Spoonful" was noticed in its 2011 presentation at Connecticut's Hartford stage.
Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes' play "Water by the Spoonful"… (Josh Lehrer )

At 34, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes has a lot going for her: this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, a piece of a Tony Award-winning musical ("In the Heights") and a growing repute as one of the most poetic, socially clued-in young voices in the American theater.

Now what she really could use is a little West Coast love.

The off-Broadway Second Stage theater company just announced that it will produce Hudes' Pulitzer-winning "Water by the Spoonful," which premiered in October at Hartford Stage. Based on the life of a cousin, Hudes' lyrical drama shifts focus between a young Marine, Elliot, who's trying to readjust to life in Philadelphia after serving in Iraq, and a disparate group of recovering addicts who communicate mainly through Internet chats.

Getting a New York production is often a crucial first step for a new play trying to gain traction at U.S. regional theaters. But whether, or when, Hudes' work will land in Southern California is hard to predict. No L.A.-area venue has plans to stage one of her plays.

"I've never actually been produced in L.A. or on the Left Coast, so that would be pretty cutting," Hudes said by phone. "I mean, 'Heights' stopped there on its tour," at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in 2010, "but that's different from, like, setting up roots there for a while and actually sinking my teeth into a new production."

Hudes' personal story would be familiar in polyglot Southern California. A Philadelphia native whose father was Jewish and mother was Puerto Rican, Hudes grew up surrounded by both English and Spanish, which her grandmother spoke exclusively. Family summer vacations in Puerto Rico kept her in touch with her Latin American cultural roots. "The landscape of the island, it's in my heart for sure," she said.

Although she says she's far more secure speaking and writing in English than Spanish, the rhythms of both idioms as well as Latin music permeate her plays. "I feel like in some ways my whole family is always living in translation," she said. "Like much of myself culturally, I always feel like I live between a few worlds."

Hudes has shown a penchant for tackling topics that U.S. popular culture generally shuns, notably the Iraq war and its stateside ripple effects. "Water by the Spoonful" is the second in a trilogy of plays that began with "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue," a 2007 Pulitzer finalist that dramatized the effects of three wars (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq) on three generations of a Puerto Rican family.

"Without ever invoking current politics, 'Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue,' manages to be a deeply poetic, touching and often funny indictment of the war in Iraq," Phoebe Hoban wrote in a review for the New York Times of the play's February 2006 production at 45 Below at the Culture Project in Lower Manhattan.

"Water by the Spoonful" continues that tale, and Hudes said she was pleased that the Pulitzer jury recognized what she calls her "big, messy, epic piece." The playwright said she had yearned to return to Elliot's story after writing the book for "In the Heights," the boisterous salsa- and hip-hop-scored Broadway hit with tunes and lyrics by its charismatic star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, set in New York's Dominican American Washington Heights neighborhood.

"Certainly, I was thinking about — not to compare the writing at all but certainly influenced by and thinking about — 'Angels In America' when I wrote this piece," she said. "I was thinking about 'August: Osage County.' I was thinking about big, big plays, and I wanted to write a big play even though it can come back to haunt you because it's very hard for a lot of theaters budget-wise."

The trilogy's concluding chapter, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," which will have its world premiere next spring at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, incorporates the latest strange-but-true twist in the life of Hudes' cousin, Elliot Ruiz. Set in an antique Jordanian town at the dawn of the Arab Spring, "Happiest Song" partly dramatizes the story of how Ruiz, after initially being recruited as a military consultant for an Iraq war-themed feature film, Nick Broomfield's "Battle for Haditha," ended up getting cast as a lead character in the movie.

The discernibly musical quality of Hudes' writing derives from her background in composition, which she studied at Yale University, before earning a playwriting M.F.A. at Brown University under her mentor, playwright Paula Vogel ("How I Learned to Drive"). There's a jazzy, riffing quality to much of the dialogue in "Water by the Spoonful," which makes a key reference to John Coltrane's milestone recording "A Love Supreme."

Hudes' work has attracted the attention of Theatre Communications Group, the nation's premier organization serving nonprofit theaters. TCG, the largest independent trade publisher of dramatic literature, will publish "Water by the Spoonful" in August, putting Hudes in company with such TCG-issued authors as Tony Kushner and Spalding Gray.

"Her work is so original and so poetic," said TCG publisher Terry Nemeth, who also plans to publish "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" this summer. "I think she's going to be writing some staggeringly beautiful stuff coming up."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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