LOS ANGELES -- It's intermission during Quiara Alegria Hudes' "Water by the Spoonful," the Pulitzer Prize-winning centerpiece of her Elliot trilogy of plays portraying the experiences of a Marine during and after the Iraq war. It's interesting, a tall young man says, how each actor in each play puts his stamp on the role of Elliot.
The tall young man has seen "Water by the Spoonful" more than once, and he's also seen "Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" (which just finished a run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre) and "The Happiest Song Plays Last" (now at the Los Angeles Theatre Center) several times apiece. He even went to Armenia to see "Water by the Spoonful" there. He doesn't know Armenian, so the only word he understood was "dissonance," spoken by the music professor character lecturing on John Coltrane. But he had no problem following the story.
He lived it.
The tall young man is Elliot Ruiz, the playwright's cousin, whom she sometimes calls her muse. They grew up together in North Philadelphia. By the time he returned from Iraq, she had a degree in music from Yale and a degree in playwriting from Brown. They had lunch together one day to catch up. He had been through a lot. She asked if she could write about it.
In the plays, his name is Elliot Ortiz, and Hudes changed other details too, reshaping them for dramatic purposes, weaving them into stories about other members of her extended Puerto Rican family and setting them to different forms of music.
But the fictional Elliot's life is close enough to this young man's that he can confidently be regarded as the Ur-Elliot, the original model, the irreducible essence of Elliot-ness from whom all other Elliots on various stages have sprung.
Ruiz enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2002 at age 17, before he had a driver's license. He went to Iraq and suffered a leg injury that required multiple surgeries, years of recovery and a medical retirement from the only career he knew. Along the way he battled -- and beat -- an addiction to pain medication.
He moved to Los Angeles to start over again, got a job, took a trip back home and ran into his senior prom date, who hated him since that night because he'd left her alone at the table and danced with other girls. She forgave him, and they married.
He became a character in a play. Then another play. Then a third play.
Ruiz has had plenty of experience watching people act out painful scenes from his past, but that doesn't mean it's not weird. Now 33, he's in the lobby of the Mark Taper Forum, where "Water by the Spoonful" is playing. He has a gentlemanly demeanor and a sweet smile, a hit of pure sugar. His eyes look a little red, though.