Hats off to Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of The Happiest Song Plays Last, for creating characters rarely represented in the New York Theatre. Look Ma – Puerto Ricans with a story up their sleeve!! She could not have had a better cast to bring her stories on to the stage. As to the stories themselves, this writer chose to go wide, when it might have been better has she gone deep.
Elliot (Armando Riesco) is a veteran who has gone back to the Middle East to work on an independent film. There he meets Ali (Dariush Kashani) the transltor and Shar (Annapurna Sriram) a Julliard trained actor who for whom wearing hijab and such is a big PIA. These two self assured folks are initially put off by one another, but soon the attraction wears them down.
Back home in North Philly Elliot’s cousin Yaz (Lauren Vélez) is dealing with her own homegrown war. She has moved from comfor back into the old neighborhood, where she is not always appreciated. Still she gives it a mighty try, leaving her door open to strangers like Lefty (Anthony Chisholm) and old friends like Agustín (Tony Plana).
The two converse via Skype and we see the deep connection they have very clearly. When the going gets rough they have each other’s back.
So far so good, except there is no plot yet, and frankly there is little to be had here. Lots and lots of things happen. Elliot and Shar decide to go to Egypt to experience the Arab Spring. Yaz has a fling with Agustín whose future turns out to be not so good. The independent movie is a success and the future DOES look good for Elliot and Shar. Yaz resurrects her community activist talents when one member of the community suffers the ultimate snub. Elliot tries to come to terms with the memory of the first man he ever killed. And Lefty spends his time just keeping it all together as best he can.
Although these are rich characters – fully formed and engaging – there is not one story that supersedes all the others. There is no one unifying force that pulls the story forward. Everyone is given equal weight here with the result that while we understand the story, there is no cause for which we are rooting. We care about them all, as if they were our neighbors – which indeed they are.
In addition, the writing itself is not as engaging as the characters. It is on the sophomoric side. Her tears looked like shooting stars. And there are major inconsistencies. In the first science of the indy shoot Shar is drenched, and she changes her clothes in front of Ali, and in the process takes off her underwear and hands it to him. Seems like something a woman wouldn’t do with a man who was a Muslim. Then of course there is the staging – poor Yaz has a cramped little living area and furniture too tiny for a love scene. And the extraordinary musicians are situated directly behind a railing of some heft, so that while we can hear their wonderful music we can only see one of them.
It adds up to a mixed bag of an evening. I look forward Quiara Alegría Hudes next play, and hope that she will trust her vision and ability to focus on one story – and let it guide her on a grand adventure. It’s that old micrcosm/macrocsm thing, The entire world is contained in the smallest detail if we study it long enough.
The Happiest Song Plays Last
By Quiara Alegría Hudes; directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson; sets by Michael Carnahan; costumes by Karen Perry; lighting by Rui Rita; sound by Leon Rothenberg; music director/composer, Nelson González; production stage manager, Amanda Michaels; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney; production manager, Jeff Wild; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director; Casey Reitz, executive director. At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, Clinton, 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Through March 23. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Anthony Chisholm (Lefty), Dariush Kashani (Ali), Tony Plana (Agustín), Armando Riesco (Elliot), Annapurna Sriram (Shar) and Lauren Vélez (Yaz).