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When the Pulitzer Prize committee gave "Water by the Spoonful" its drama award last year, it did so on the basis of reading the script. Now that script, about an Iraq war veteran, is being brought to life in the first New York production of the play, opening off-Broadway this evening.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The cliche about writers is they should write what they know, and that old saw has certainly worked for Quiara Alegría Hudes. The 35-year-old playwright has mined her Puerto Rican family's stories into a series of plays, a musical, and even a children's book. "Water by the Spoonful" is the second play in a trilogy which features a character named Elliot, an injured Iraq war veteran who's returned to his home in North Philadelphia.

Elliot is based on Hudes' cousin, also named Elliot. She says she went to visit him on a military base, shortly after he returned from Iraq.

QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES: I just remember the instant I saw him, there was just something changed in his eye. You know, he was still absolutely the same young clown of a cousin I had always known and had grown up with, loving, but there was something different. And I felt that I might never understand it. And that's the simple spark that it came from.

LUNDEN: As Hudes' began writing about Elliot's experiences, she says she noticed...

HUDES: There were just more and more young people in the city showing up in uniform and especially in the Latino neighborhood, which is where Elliot was raised in North Philly. And I thought, it's not just Elliot's story. This is going to be the story of a generation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WATER BY THE SPOONFUL")

ARMANDO RIESCO: (as Elliot) (Unintelligible) with American cheese on whole grain (unintelligible) on flatbread? Are we good so far?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) (Unintelligible)

RIESCO: (as Elliot) (Unintelligible) chocolate chip cookies?

LUNDEN: Armando Riesco has played Elliot since the first play premiered in 2006 and will be playing him in the final installment of the trilogy, when it opens in Chicago this spring. In "Water by the Spoonful," Elliot is haunted by his experiences in Iraq and working in a mind-numbing job at a sandwich shop. Riesco says he went online to veterans' chat rooms to do some research.

RIESCO: The very first story that I found there was a 24-year-old Marine that came back with a leg injury, that was working a dead-end job and who just did not know what to do with his anger. And I thought there's a lot of this out there.

LUNDEN: The online world is a large part of "Water by the Spoonful," though it doesn't seem directly related to Elliot's story - at least for most of the play's first act.

According to director Davis McCallum...

DAVID MCCALLUM: The play is in part about families because there's a blood family in North Philly. And then there's a family of choice that kind of congregates in this online chat room.

LUNDEN: An online chat room for recovering crack addicts. These two stories work in parallel for the first act and eventually collide in the second. McCallum says the relationships in the online community are every bit as real as the ones in the flesh and blood family, for the most part.

MCCALLUM: They're so close in every way, except for physically. There's a moment late in the play where two characters meet, face-to-face, for the first time. And it's really a great piece of writing, because you realize that they know everything about the other person, you know, except for what they look like and what their name is - which we think of as two of the most fundamental ways people define themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WATER BY THE SPOONFUL")

LIZA COLON-ZAYAS: (as Odessa/HaikuMom) Any time you feel like using, log on here instead.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) What's in it?

COLON-ZAYAS: When it comes to junkies, I got lower than the dungeon. Once upon a time I had a beautiful family too. Now all I have is six years clean.

LUNDEN: Where these two worlds meet is in a character named Odessa - or HaikuMom, which is her online alias. In the play's explosive second act, the audience discovers how this calm, placid, nurturing figure in the chat room became estranged from her family, which includes Elliot. Liza Colon-Zayas plays the troubled character, who finds her better self online.

COLON-ZAYAS: You can remake yourself and you can re-imagine yourself and start fresh in a way that she can't do in her own community with her own family.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WATER BY THE SPOONFUL")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC TONES)

COLON-ZAYAS: (as Odessa/HaikuMom) Ninety-one days. Smile, you guys. Orangutan. Jesus. I thought my primate friend had disappeared back into the jungle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Disappeared, yes. Jungle - happily, no.

LUNDEN: Ultimately, all the characters in "Water by the Spoonful" are dealing with deep reservoirs of pain and guilt, and are knocked down by their demons, says director Davis McCallum.

MCCALLUM: One of the central things about the play is, after you get knocked down, by what means and through what set of actions do you go about the process of getting back up?

LUNDEN: That, playwright Quiara Alegría says, is what leads to a hopeful ending, as these disparate characters, with their disparate stories, come together in sometimes surprising ways.

HUDES: You know, I think "Water by the Spoonful" has what I would almost call three love stories, though the love is not necessarily romantic at all. But I think it is, in some ways, a play about finding love and grace and companionship in unexpected places.

LUNDEN: As for the real Elliot, Hudes says her 27-year-old cousin has succeeded in rebuilding his life. He's now employed full-time, going to college in the evenings, and will be there tonight for the opening.

HUDES: There's a lot of gratitude in both directions, and I'm excited for him to see this play again. And I'm excited for him to walk the red carpet and kind of stand up tall and flash his big cheeseburger smile and, you know, be honored as a young American man.

LUNDEN: "Water by the Spoonful" plays at Second Stage, off-Broadway, through January 27. The third play of the Elliot trilogy, "The Happiest Song Plays Last," begins performances at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on April 13.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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