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Off Broadway Review: ‘The Happiest Song Plays Last’

The third in a cycle of plays by Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegria Hudes suffers from static storytelling, but thank goodness for the live music.

With:

Anthony Chisholm, Dariush Kashani, Tony Plana, Armando Riesco, Annapurna Sriram, Lauren Velez.

“Elliot:  A Soldier’s Fugue” began the cycle of plays by Quiara Alegria Hudes about a young Marine’s re-entry into the land of the living after a soul-destroying tour in Iraq.  “Water by the Spoonful,” which examines the original source of Elliot’s traumatized psyche, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.  Completing the cycle, “The Happiest Song Plays Last” adds a few wrinkles to the familiar material, but finally delivers the big reveal we’ve seen coming for a long time.  Huge thanks to composer Nelson Gonzalez and superb fellow musicians for the Puerto Rican folk music that elevates the static storytelling to folklore. 

Production values at Second Stage are always impressively high, which suits Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s directorial style — all heart and technically flawless.  Visually, the stage comes alive on Michael Carnahan’s stunning set, a multiple-story framework of rough plank walls and opaque windows that sets the scene for various locations in the Middle East while doubling as the family homefront in north Philadelphia.

But no matter where we are or what’s going on below, our attention is drawn to a flower-decked wrought-iron balcony (lighted in eternal sunshine by Rui Rita) where three musicians, led by composer Gonzalez, play hypnotic folksongs on traditional Puerto Rican instruments of guitar, cuatro, guiro, and bongos.  To an American soldier in a foreign land, that’s the sound of home.

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Armando Riesco, who took the lead in the scribe’s previous plays, returns as Elliot, a role that he now owns.  Far less tormented than he was in his previous incarnations, this former American Marine survived duty in Iraq and is now on location in Azraq, Jordan, filming a docudrama (“Haditha on Fire”) and getting cozy with Shar (Annapurna Sriram), his beautiful Egyptian-American co-star.

It’s 2011 and Egypt is in the throes of the populist revolution that began in Tahrir Square and would soon bring down the government, but that doesn’t really count for much in these talky-talky scenes about nothing much.  It’s frankly astonishing that these young foreigners are so detached from their surroundings that they don’t even press Ali (Dariush Kashani), their knowledgeable Jordanian driver, for news about the revolution.

Meanwhile, back home in Philadelphia, there’s more aimless conversation between Elliot’s beloved cousin, Yaz (Lauren Velez), and Agustin (Tony Plana), a much older married man who makes a fool of himself when he drinks and can’t believe his good luck when luscious Yaz makes the moves on him.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be living on these blocks,” says Yaz, who is something of an earth mother in this godforsaken neighborhood.  “But here I am, trying to fix everyone’s craziness.”  Here, she’s trying to fix her own problems, the condition of being a woman of feeling in an unfeeling neighborhood.  But while the characters are sympathetic (and well-played by the thesps), the courtship is tedious and seems to have nothing to do with Elliot’s adventures in the Middle East.

The play isn’t entirely pointless, in that it finally brings Elliot to the point where he can acknowledge the terrible war crime he committed in Iraq.   That question has been hanging over this play cycle from the beginning, and although the big reveal doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, the voice of the playwright is quite eloquent and Riesco captures the horror and the self-loathing that has made Elliot’s life a living hell.

But make no mistake about it — if Gonzalez were not on hand to wring our hearts with his soulful music, the resolution of this play cycle would be a real letdown.

Off Broadway Review: 'The Happiest Song Plays Last'

Second Stage Theater; 300 seats; $125 top.  Opened March 3, 2014.  Reviewed Feb. 27.Running time:  TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production:

A Second Stage presentation of a Goodman Theater production of a play in two acts by Quiara Alegria Hudes, with music by Nelson Gonzalez. 

Creative:

Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.  Sets, Michael Carnahan; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Rui Rita; sound, Leon Rothenberg; music director & composer, Nelson Gonzalez; production stage manager, Amanda Michaels.

Cast:

Anthony Chisholm, Dariush Kashani, Tony Plana, Armando Riesco, Annapurna Sriram, Lauren Velez.

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