Chicago Theater Review: THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST (Goodman Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on April 23, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Undernourished as this commissioned play may feel, it is, in fact, the last of the “Elliot Trilogy” by Quiara Alegría Hudes (bookwriter for In the Heights). The saga depicts how wars shaped three generations of a Puerto Rican family: The first was Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue and the second installment, Water by the Spoonful, received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize (see Stage and Cinema’s review of Second Stage’s Off-Broadway production). The Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the Goodman.trilogy’s final installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, which opened at the Goodman Theatre last night, takes 150 talky minutes to deliver both stagnant and rambling storytelling about Elliott Ruiz, an Iraq War veteran, and his earth-mother cousin Yaz – both from Pennsylvania. The trilogy’s thrust involves Elliot, who is trying to mend from the brutality of war, but Happiest Song needs its own recovery. Half-baked and at times aimless, it seems more a series of speeches (many of them socially relevant or politically correct) than well-constructed scenes. Instead, most scenes feel sadly improvised rather than urgent or surprising. Perhaps this play will mean much more to people who’ve seen the others in the trilogy.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the Goodman.It is 2011 during the Arab Spring, and Elliott (Armando Riesco) is now in Jordan, appearing in and consulting for an action film where he meets Shar (Fawzi Mirza), a stunt actress whom he falls for, and Ali (Demetrios Troy), an expatriate Iraqi working as a gopher on the indie movie. Ali, who has his own secrets that eat at his soul, offers a way for Elliot to atone for a war crime committed a decade ago. Even as Elliott gets caught up in the excitement of revolution, specifically the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, this whole sequence reads like filler and leads nowhere (as does the unnecessary prologue which has Yaz speechifying at a demonstration in Arizona a year earlier).

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the Goodman.Still, the Egyptian activism does create a sardonic parallel with North Philadelphia, where Yaz (Sandra Marquez) burns to make a difference. She feeds and shelters the hungry, including Lefty (James Harms), a childlike homeless man who directs traffic so that children aren’t killed in crosswalks. She also tries to stir neighborhood anger over the Third World conditions of their local hospital. Yaz has a deep affection for Agustin (Jaime Tirelli), a guitarist who for 30 years has played soulful jibaro music – rural ballads from Puerto Rico – as a communal offering to a displaced community. He’s a simple soul whose very lines play like melodies, thanks to the lyricism in some of Hudes’ dialogue. The singing and live playing of the cuatro (a cousin to the guitar), elegantly performed by Nelson Gonzales, is easily this play’s best element (sound design and original music by Ray Nardelli and Joshua Horvath).

The scenes in Jordan depict the occasional culture clashes that erupt in the making of a forgettable feature film – and Elliott’s demons surface when a simulated war scene takes him back and down – but mostly they play like a “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” class report (including an obligatory visit to the “rock Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the” tourist site of Petra) with Skyped conversations with Yaz detailing the colorful and obvious differences between the desert and the barrio.

Back home, Yaz must cope with a sudden death, and her overreaction to a flagrant case of urban neglect (“City of Brotherly Love,” indeed) is a prime example of the playwright’s fractious and issue-based attempt at storytelling. Symbolism abounds when Elliott returns: He literally buries his wartime remorse; Yaz can finally let go of a troubling event; and both Yaz and Shar are conveniently pregnant – a signpost that healing is on the horizon. (Interestingly, the title The Happiest Song Plays Last is a questionable aphorism that’s never explained.)

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the Goodman.Marquez’ maternal majesty gives Yaz a presence that her elegiac dialogue does not. Riesco (who has appeared in all three installments) anchors Elliott in gung-ho directness but little else; whatever he offers doesn’t deserve a play, let alone a trilogy. James Harms drifts in and out of scenes, sweetly addlepated as Lefty, the permanent transient with the heart of a puppy. John Boesche’s video projections paint pictures on Collette Pollard’s whitewashed tenement set; together with Jesse Klug’s lighting, the technical elements reverberate beyond the play’s self-referential sentiment.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema Chicago review of THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at the Goodman.Edward Torres’ extraordinarily static staging works hard to make an even more static and discursive plot move along. Indeed, the strongest weakness of the evening lies in Hudes’ inability to grasp the core of a sprawling story: Is Happiest Song about Elliott’s coming of age and postwar redemption? Yaz’ attempt to hold a community together (as well as the diminished Ruiz family)? A comparative exploration of the relativism of political protest? Or is it about the evocative power of jibaro music (which is used to bridge scenes that don’t add up)?  For the play to contain a much-needed focus, the answer cannot be “all of the above.” But that is, alas, exactly what it is.

photos by Liz Lauren

The Happiest Song Plays Last
Owen Theatre at the Goodman
produced in association with Teatro Vista
scheduled to end on May 12, 2013
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