Friday, February 28, 2014

Thoughts on The Happiest Song Plays Last

Last year around this time, I saw Quiara Alegria Hudes' Water by the Spoonful, which won the Pulitzer Prize.  I loved it.  That play was the second in a trilogy - last night, I saw the third play of the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at Second Stage.  And, again, I loved it.  Since it hasn't opened yet, I'll only offer a few thoughts.

I just love how personal and how profound the characters and dialogue are in Quiara's plays.  It's as if we're eavesdropping on a personal conversation, that's how real and spot-on the dialogue is.  Every actor seems to play their character with a light touch, and yet you can see the pain and agony underneath, which makes their actions even more poignant.  And realistic, in my opinion.

The Happiest Song Plays Last takes place simultaneously in Jordan, where a movie is being filmed, and Philadelphia, where a block party is being planned.  These two events are small yet large in scope.  How the inciting incidents open up and become about more than just the personal is really well-written and constructed.  Elliot, the Iraqi war veteran whose story has played out across all three plays in the trilogy, is in Jordan filming a movie about the Iraqi war.  You can see that his time in the war still marks him and he is trying to live his life and get through to the other side.  The scenes he has with Ali, the 'Iraqi consultant' on the film, are just heartbreaking.  They're joking and kidding around and suddenly there is profound pain and sadness.  I alternated between laughing and crying often throughout the play.

The other story centers on Yaz, Elliot's cousin, who is living in Philadelphia and has taken on a nurturing role amongst the poor and homeless in her neighborhood.  We first see her after she has bailed a neighbor (and longtime friend) out of jail.  As the scene plays out, you can see all of the history of her life in that neighborhood, what she has given up and what she is reaching for, all in one conversation with Agustin, the drunken n'er do well/musician she has rescued from jail.  All of a sudden, the conversation takes an unexpected turn and as Agustin starts to seduce Yaz, he is also seducing the audience.  Well, he was seducing me at least.  I found Tony Plana, as Agustin, to be ever so wonderful in this piece.  I think his story moved me most, not that I wasn't completely taken with every actor and character, I just felt his most deeply.

These stories intersect by Skype conversations between the cousins - in these conversations, you can see who they are, but in their interactions with other characters, you can see who they want to be.  Whether or not they get there is part of the delight in watching this story play out.  Quiara is a wonderful storyteller and I was completely engrossed throughout the play and could seriously have listened to those actors, playing those characters, talk to me and tell me stories all night.  Their need for forgiveness, and their desire to move away from the failures of their past, was tremendously cathartic to me.  And, as a fantastic bonus, there was live music composed by Nelson Gonzalez and played by Gonzalez and two other musicians.  I thought the music beautifully expressed the world of the play and of the characters, plus it was used ingeniously for other sound effects throughout the play.

Clearly, I loved this piece and relate enormously with Quiara's world view and writing style.  In the interest of full disclosure, there were quite a few in the theater last night who did not share my happiness.  There was a group of eight women in front of me who left at intermission, and several people behind me left as well.  There was also a woman who kept zipping and unzipping her purse in boredom.  But oh well for them.  I hope hope hope that all three plays get done in repertory together someday soon, so I can see all three of them, one after the other.  I think that would be a powerful experience that I would cherish.  But in the meantime, get yourself to Second Stage to check out The Happiest Song Plays Last.

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