Saturday, 22 March 2014

THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST by Quiara Allegria Hudes at Second Stage

     A years and a half ago I raved about the second play in Quiara Allegria Hudes's Elliott trilogy, the Pulitzer Prize winning WATER BY THE SPOONFUL. Now we have the even better final panel of the triptych, THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. Where WATER BY THE SPOONFUL was built on jazz and the music of John Coltrane, this play is built on Puerto Rican music, played between and sometimes during scenes by a wonderful live combo.
     Elliott (played as before by the charismatic Armando Riesco), the physically and psychically wounded Iraq war veteran, is now a successful actor playing a marine in a film about the Iraq War being shot in Jordan. He is still trying to make amends for killing an innocent civilian, an act that has haunted him for years, but he finds during this play that he must forgive himself and does in the ritual that ends the play. He falls in love with an actress on the film, Shar, who is multi-ethnic and can speak Arabic. He also befriends Ali, an Iraqui illegally living in Jordan to avoid the chaos of his home country. Elliott's cousin and best friend, Yar (Lauren Velez), has moved out of her center city Philadelphia apartment into a a humble home in a Latino neighborhood in North Philadelphia. There she cooks for her poor neighbors and, like her aunt, Elliott's mother, engages in some community organizing. Yar falls in love with Agostin (Tony Plana in a superb performance), a married man twice her age looking for real love and the possibility of having a child.
     All this recounting of the narrative tells you little about Hudes's lovely play. Though all the characters are great storytellers THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST is more about characters, relationships and language than about narrative. The beauty is in the poetic speech, in the loveliness of the spirits of these people whom one comes to care deeply about during the two-plus hours of the play. Corny as this sounds, one can only describe that play as a celebration of the human spirit. I can tell you that my audience was rapt and were so excited by the play that they enthusiastically applauded every scene -- and every musical interlude. After two nights of seeing plays about dysfunctional families, it was refreshing to see and hear a celebration of all kinds of love and of the power of language and of music.
     The production has been beautifully directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudsom with a splendid two-level unit set by Michael Carnahan. The cast is uniformly excellent, but special bravos to Tony Plana who fully inhabits the life-affirming Agostin. Like all of Hudes's characters he is flawed, but filled with a love for living.
     There's nothing sappy about THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. It is both tough and life-affirming. The language is as musical as the wonderful Latin rhythms the combo plays.
THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST. Second Stage Theatre. March 21, 2014.

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