Rarely does the third entry in a trilogy surpass its predecessors, and so it goes with Quiara Alegría Hudes’ The Happiest Song Plays Last, a continuation of her plays about Puerto Rican Iraq War veteran Elliot and his cousin Yaz.
In this case, that’s no slight to Happiest Song, which has the tough task of following the Pulitzer-winning Water by the Spoonful, a deft weaving of stories about addiction and loss, with chatroom communication functioning as a meaningful device and not just a gimmick.
In this third and final part, Hudes naturally gravitates toward tales of attempted renewal, with the Arab Spring as backdrop. Hudes’ facility for heartfelt poetic dialogue remains, but the play doesn’t work quite as well. The interlocking story structure is more arbitrary. Moments of magical realism feel more forced. The wrenching possibilities of a late revelation are even more tidily wrapped up.
Some of these flaws are amplified in an uneven Theatre22 production that has its own expectations to live up to. The company’s 2015 production of Water by the Spoonful was one of that year’s standouts, sensitively directed by Julie Beckman, with an excellent cast that included Rose Cano and the late G. Valmont Thomas. (Theatre22 also presented a reading of the trilogy’s first part, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue.)
Beckman returns to direct, and her canny ability to draw out conflicting emotions in a scene is visible in some of the play’s stronger moments, like when Elliot (Joshua Chessin-Yudin), who’s fulfilled his dream of working in the movies, discovers the true heritage of Ali (Agastya Kohli), an on-set Iraqi consultant with whom he’s formed a fast bond.
More common though are scenes where performances grate against Hudes’ tendencies toward melodrama. She certainly likes an emotional crescendo, but not every scene requires the outsized acting that continually crops up in Theatre22’s staging.
Elliot and Yaz’s stories run parallel in Happiest Song. While he’s been promoted from military consultant to lead actor on a war movie being shot in Jordan, she (Aida Leguizamon) has moved into the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood where their family has deep roots. She’s still teaching music, but she’s also become the de facto neighborhood caretaker, her stove laden with pots of food and her door always open to welcome in people like Lefty (Rich Hawkins), a homeless man who calls her Mom.
Both Elliot and Yaz have new romantic prospects. For Elliot, it’s Shar (Lexi Chipman), the lead actress on his movie who’s a quarter Egyptian and a quarter Iranian, grew up in Beverly Hills and learned Arabic to make herself more marketable as an actor. For Yaz, it’s Agustín (Michael D. Blum), a married neighbor at least 20 years her senior who’s an enthusiastic drinker and player of the Puerto Rican cuatro, a guitar-like instrument that provides the play’s musical backing. (Aside from a plucked string here and there, it’s all canned music.)
Elliot and Yaz stay in touch by video chatting in a series of awkwardly staged scenes that have Chessin-Yudin staring out into nothingness while Leguizamon peers into a laptop. That sense of disconnection pervades their scenes together, which have barely a hint of their deeply forged familial bond.
For his part, Chessin-Yudin gives the play’s most passionately felt performance, tipping a touch too far into “oorah!” theatrics, but still getting at the heart of Elliot’s desire for change in his life and in the world. Leguizamon’s stiff, affected portrayals of sympathy and longing keep Yaz’s desires at arm’s length.
Hudes’ Elliot Trilogy is all about the families we make, and how patchwork connections can become something much more profound than the sum of their disparate parts. The same applies to her writing, as discrete scenes cohere over the course of the play. Or maybe they don’t. Still, Hudes’ boundless empathy for her characters has a way of covering for the shortcomings.