BWW Review: THE HAPPIEST SONG PLAYS LAST at Santa Fe Playhouse
When we arrived at Santa Fe Playhouse for the Sunday matinee of The Happiest Song Plays Last - part three of the Elliot Trilogy, superbly written by Quiara Alegria Hudes and currently being produced in a collaborative effort by three local theaters, - I asked the director, "is this really the happiest one?" Truth be told, part two, Water by the Spoonful, emotionally wrecked me for about a week - I was hoping the trilogy's conclusion would end on a higher note. Happiest Song did not disappoint, although I wasn't always sure it was going to go that way.
Happiest Song finds Elliot (Devin Zamora), an Iraq War veteran, in ancient Jordan town at the dawn of the Arab Spring. He has a newfound career as an action film hero and is coming to terms with his success and the prospect of a new relationship with Shar, his co-star
(Tara Khozein). He has befriended Iraqi production assistant Ali (Robert Henkel Jr.) who is living in Jordan without a visa -both men are working to process their trauma from war.
At the same time, in the Philadelphia kitchen of Mama Ginny, the woman who raised Elliot (and dies in Water by the Spoonful), we learn that Elliot's cousin Yaz (Roxanne Tapia) has purchased the North Philly home and is running an impromptu soup kitchen for the neighborhood strays and people in need.
The play moves between scenes in Jordan on the set, where in between takes the actors and crew are watching the liberation of Egypt on TV, and Yaz's North Philadelphia kitchen, where visitors such as her friend and fellow political agitator Agustin (Oscar Rodriguez) and homeless lost soul Lefty (Argos McCallum) stop by for a hot plate and some conversation. Yaz seems to be searching for purpose, and is doing her best to keep the neighborhood together by planning a Three Kings celebration. She and Oscar flirt shamelessly, even though he is married and several decades her senior. Oscar bemoans his loveless marriage and the fact that he has never had children. Is Yaz his last hope for a continuing legacy?
The characters of Lefty and Ali are important to moving the stories forward - Lefty's earnest but troubled behavior cries out for a mother, which gives Yaz her purpose. Ali is pivotal in helping Elliot to confront his past and the ghosts of war. Both McCallum and Henkel play their parts and break our hearts.
As in parts one and two of the trilogy, this ensemble cast is strong. There seems to be a greater sense of connection between the characters in this play than the first two; more people have conversations as opposed to monologues and talk directly to one another. Particularly strong in this play is the romantic/friendly relationship between Yaz and Agustin, which is both poignant and organic. The relationship between Elliot and Shar is a little more murky and difficult to figure out - do they really love each other or are they just making the best of their situation? Even as the answer is revealed in the last act, it's still unclear if they have what it takes to make the relationship last.
Kudos to the set and lighting directors and crew - even though the scenery remained the same for the entire show, the use of space on the stage clearly defined Jordan and Philadelphia. The use of television screens and lighting helped to set the tone and enhance the experience.
As stated in my reviews of parts one and two, I want to give special thanks to all three theater companies - Teatro Paraguas, Ironweed Productions and Santa Fe Playhouse - for working together to stage this moving and meaningful trilogy. Santa Fe needs more of this - collaboration is the key to theater succeeding and growing in our town. This is an excellent start!
The Happiest Song Plays Last opened October 10 and runs through November 2. Go to www.santafeplayhouse.org for tickets.