‘Happiest Song’ spins a tiresome, apologetic tale
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 22, 2013 7:06PM
Sandra Marquez and Armando Riesc star in Quiara Alegria Hudes’ "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at the Goodman Theatre.
SONG PLAYS LAST’
When: Through May 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Info: (312) 443-3800; www.GoodmanTheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, withone
Updated: May 24, 2013 6:06AM
For those who still hold fast to their bleeding heart liberal dreams in the wake of the events of the past week (not to mention the past decade or more), a good portion of Pulitzer Prize-winner Quiara Alegria Hudes’s play, “The Happiest Song Plays Last” — the third installment in “The Elliot Trilogy” — may seem like a soothing balm. For others it might feel, at best, like a deluded affirmation of wishful thinking. And some might even find it offensive.
To be sure “Happiest Song,” now in its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, is an ambitious work, spanning two halves of the globe and two very different societies, and dealing with the fallout of war, the thrill of revolution, the pervasiveness of poverty in America, the treatment of immigrants, the fear and embrace of parenthood, the difficulty of organizing for change, and, of course, that ever-present theme in contemporary plays — the search for identity.
But frankly, the sight of a young, troubled American soldier apologizing for his wartime activities to his new “friend” — a nervous Iraqi refugee in Jordan — is just too much to stomach. War is a horror; that is a given. But have you heard a single apology yet from those who planted improvised explosive devices and blew the legs off countless G.I.s?
Had Hudes remained on the home front, in the tattered North Philadelphia neighborhood where half her drama unspools, she would have had a far more moving, and no less politically engaged story to tell.
As it is, “Happiest Song” lives in two places. One is the kitchen of the North Philly row house where Yaz (a bravura turn by the deeply real Sandra Marquez), an unmarried, fiercely energetic Puerto Rican-American woman of about 40, lives and works. A teacher by day, as well as a firebrand activist who cannot quite stir her constituency to action, she also is a one-woman soup kitchen, nurturing her neighborhood, tending to her longtime neighbor, Agustin (Jaime Tirelli), the aging, alcoholic, caudro musican who wants to impregnate her, and befriending Lefty (James Harms), the elderly homeless man who calls her “Mom.”
Yaz’s young nephew, Elliot (Armando Riesco), with whom she communicates via texting and Skype, served in Iraq, but is now out of the military, working as an “authenticity consultant” and actor on a British docudrama about a controversial wartime incident. The film, which brings back traumatic memories for him, is being shot in Jordan, where he meets Ali (Demetrios Troy), the Iraqi refugee working as a driver for the crew, who becomes his new pal and “brother,” as well as Shar (Fawzia Mirza), the wealthy, Juilliard-trained actress who prefers not to dwell on her Middle Eastern heritage.
Along the way, Elliot, an adventure junkie, is hellbent on traveling to Egypt despite the fact that the streets of Cairo are in tumult, and Hosni Mubarak is about to be ousted as Egypt’s leader. (Of course the triumphalism of that moment has dimmed considerably in the interim.)
Director Edward Torres, in collaboration with his fine actors and superb design team — Collette Pollard (set), Jesse Klug (lights), John Boesche (projections) — deftly unites the play’s disparate worlds. And Nelson Gonzalez, that master of cuadro (Puerto Rican ballads) sings and plays those rueful songs, first and last.