As the first measures of Nelson Gonzalez’s Cuban guitar music sway around the theater and his rich, deep voice fills the air with a gentle Spanish melody, you will feel transported to another time and place, a place of rich culture and tradition: Puerto Rico.
Once he exits the stage, however, you may feel a jolt of confusion, a feeling that never quite leaves you for the duration of the production. Playwright Quiara Algeria Hudes and director Edward Torres set out to ambitiously combine the stories of a troubled, war-torn Iraqi veteran with an intelligent, desperate woman in North Philly. Unfortunately, these two notes don’t harmonize.
The first of the two tales involves Elliot (Armando Riesco), an Iraq war veteran attempting to come to terms with his past actions while simultaneously being forced to relive them through his new job as an actor in an action movie. Though these events are based on the actual life of Hudes’ cousin, the story falls short of being realistic. It seems to rely on stereotypes to move the story along rather than delving into the deeper, more interesting psychological issues that plague him. Perhaps the omission is due to the constant jumping back and forth between Elliot and the second story of Yaz (played convincingly by Sandra Marquez).
Yaz fills her life with caring for others. Her house is a makeshift soup kitchen for the needy, but she still feels lonely. I may have disagreed with some of Yaz’s choices (her love interest, for example), but her story was nonetheless believable and sometimes deeply moving, especially during the second act. Once again, however, the strange back-and-forth format of the play in which viewers were constantly switching between characters, dilemmas, and sets meant that some of the more emotional elements of Yaz’s story were lost. It is difficult to come to care deeply about a character if you only get to see him or her for a period of a few minutes before you move on to an entirely different plot.
The Happiest Song Plays Last does makes excellent use of technology, projecting Skype conversations and a texting session between the cousins on a wall, which successfully blends Latin American identity into a contemporary work. But it still does not link the two disparate tales.
The production would be stronger if Hudes had just made her play focused on either Elliot or Yaz. With the two stories, the production seems rushed and less believable. Though this play was meant to be Hudes’ final installment of the “Elliot Trilogy” (begun in 2006), it is still vital for each separate play to be able to stand on its own. Audiences should not require any prior knowledge of characters in order to understand their actions.
I’d like to think that there was some kind of deeper meaning in this play, but my overall sense was one of confusion. The characters were undoubtedly interesting, though they lost some of their realness when the scenes were constantly shifting. The Happiest Song Plays Last makes interesting contemporary connections with a Latino inspired focus, but the rest of the production is still too rough around the edges.