Mar. 3, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman
“The Happiest Song Plays Last,” Los Angeles Theater Center, Feb. 2 – Mar. 19, 2018
In Brief: The last chapter of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s deeply felt trilogy fills in the blanks and offers a satisfying conclusion to the story of a troubled family coping with the aftereffects of war and drug addiction
Los Angeles theatergoers have plenty to be grateful for this winter, thanks to the Center Theatre Group and Latino Theater Company. Last month and this, we’ve have had the good fortune to immerse ourselves, in chronological order, in resonant productions of all three plays in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s absorbing Elliot cycle.
Kamal Mayarati, Peter Pasco, Vaneh Assadourian (Photo: Gio Solis)
Now that the final installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, has opened at the Los Angeles Theater Center – under Edward Torres’s thoughtful, efficient staging – we can appreciate the fullness of Hudes’s achievement, as well as that of the gifted actors and theater craftsmen who do honor to her beautiful, reflective writing.
There’s a lot on the author’s mind in these plays: fragmented families, drug addiction, the aftereffects of war, homelessness, social and political upheaval, loss, regret, longing, and redemption. The works are filled with complex yet nuanced characters, with noteworthy performances to match. Elliot Ruiz is the main character in the cycle. Three actors are playing the role: Peter Mendoza in Elliot, A Solider’s Fugue, Sean Carvajal in Water By The Spoonful, and Peter Pasco in The Happiest Song. I found Mendoza to be the most magnetic and watchable of the trio, though Carvajal and Pasco were fine, too.
Elliot is a young man of Puerto Rican descent living in Philadelphia. Full of expectation and with boundless energy, he goes off to fight in Iraq in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first and most focused of the dramas. It’s a tight, plaintive, lyrical riff on how combat shapes the destinies of Elliot’s father, grandfather, and the young warrior himself. The Kirk Douglas Theater production was modest yet riveting.
Elisa Bocanegra as Yaz, Al Rodrigo as Agustin (Photo: Gio Solis)
The second play takes a detour of sorts, introducing a couple of unrelated characters – recovering drug addicts who interact through an Internet chat room – and Elliot’s mother, Odessa, who moderates it and also is a recovering addict. We learn that Odessa abandoned Elliot as a child and that it was her sister, Ginny, who raised him. We also get to know a bit about Elliot’s adored cousin, Yazmin, a university music professor who has escaped from her family’s blue collar existence, yet remains close to them.
Water By The Spoonful won a Pulitzer Prize and Hudes intended, as with the other two plays, for the audience to enjoy it without the benefit of having seen the others. While that may be the case, it’s also true that the production becomes that much more meaningful in the context of the other two works. At the same time, it suffers by comparison to the sharp focus of the first play and the potent emotional resonance of the third one. Or at least, it did for me.
The concluding drama, The Happiest Song, brings Elliot back into the foreground, alongside Yazmin, who moved from her gentrified Center City apartment to Ginny’s house in the old neighborhood after Ginny died. But first Hudes brings us up to date about Elliot, now an actor on location in Jordan where he is playing the lead in an indie film about the Iraq war at the very moment that young Egyptians are protesting in Tahrir Square – an unusual premise to be sure, but one that ultimately makes sense.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Yazmin has devoted herself, compulsively, to helping her community. She keeps pots of food on the stove at all times for the homeless in her neighborhood, offering not only meals but emotional support, too. Her door is always open. On a personal level, however, she’s unfulfilled. That changes when her old friend Agustin reenters her life.
Peter Pisco plays Elliot (Photo: Gio Solis)
With Hudes, the personal and the political coexist in each of her very human characters’s lives. There’s no hiding from yourself, your family, or the tide of social and political events.
There’s a lot to recommend in this production of The Happest Song Plays Last. Peter Pasco as Elliot and Elisa Bocanegra as Yaz both are appealing and sympathetic. So are Al Rodrigo, Kamal Myarati, Vaneh Assadourian, and John Seda-Pitre in key supporting roles. Edward Torres has wisely directed with a view toward bringing clarity, simplicity, and tenderness to the fore.
Sets, lighting, costumes and other technical aspects are basic but professional. The play’s the thing here.
As with the other Elliot cycle plays, music figures prominently in the proceedings. Hudes isn’t interested in using it as underscore. For her it’s another character in the narrative. The singer and guitarist Nelson Gonzalez appears at various points to sing lovely Puerto Rican ballads. For the audience, it’s a few moments of grace before the playwright delves back into the lives of the conflicted, fundamentally decent characters she so clearly loves, has thought about so intently, and presents with so much respect and humanity.
"The Happiest Song Plays Last," Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., (866) 811-4111, www.thelatc.org