"Write about your own life" says many a writing teacher to many a young scribe. Confronted with that authoritative solipsism, the young writer tends to worry about two things. First, that my life is not interesting enough to write about, especially not two or three times over. Second, my life is too disconnected, too esoteric, too darn individual to push any kind of universal button and actually mean anything to anyone else.
Well, the compelling argument presented at the Goodman Theatre by "The Happiest Song Plays Last," the delightful premiering play by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who won the Pulitzer Prize in drama just last year, would suggest that those writing teachers are exactly right.
Directed in Chicago by Edward Torres, this intensely engaging new drama is very much based on Hudes' own life, composed of a eclectic and unusual set of personal experiences and circumstances that really should not work as a unified play — this thing bounces between Philadelphia and the country of Jordan — but in fact works darn well, precisely because it is an eclectic and unusual set of experiences and circumstances that you could not imagine anyone inventing out of whole cloth. Life really can be better than fiction. And it's good for a liberal writer to have a military guy in the family.
And thus Hudes' story, esoteric as it many seem, not only comes with the unmistakable whiff of authenticity but conveys how none of our lives are entirely ordinary, and how our small stuff actually connects to all kinds of big stuff, be it matters of global import, community progress or the cliches of Hollywood representation.
"The Happiest Song Plays Last" is set in North Philadelphia and focuses in on Yaz, a highly educated character (played by Sandra Marquez) who could well be living in Greenwich Village but actually remains intensely connected to the Puerto Rican community of Philadelphia. This is a lot like Hudes herself. She's at the core of one half of the action, set in a Philly apartment. The other half is set in Jordan, and follows Yaz's cousin Elliot, a veteran of the war in Iraq and now an actor in a documentary about the war in Iraq. This character, blisteringly played by Armando Riesco, is based on Hudes' own cousin, also named Elliot, also a veteran of the war in Iraq, and also a guy who got hired as an actor in a documentary about the war in Iraq.
Yaz and Elliot live their separate lives. Yaz plots a relationship with a fellow Puerto Rican (Jaime Tirelli), takes care of a neighborhood eccentric named Lefty (James Harms) and Skypes with her cousin, at once mothering and envying him. Elliot hatches a romance with a part-Iranian actress, Shar (Fawzia Mirza), tries to come to terms with the weirdness of making a movie alongside an Iraqi, Ali (Demetrios Troy), even though Elliot was shooting at Iraqis, killing at least one in horrific circumstances, not long before. But so goes the world on either side of the world.
One of the frustrations of how the nonprofit theater tends to work — as distinct from, say, HBO or Showtime — is that works can get done in a weird kind of order over a long period of time with different locales cobbling together the funding. This play is the last in a trilogy — an "Elliot trilogy," if you like.
I reviewed the first, "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue" in the Garage Theatre at Steppenwolf more than five years ago. The second (and the one that won the 2012 Pulitzer) is called "Water by the Spoonful" and will get its first Chicago production at Court Theatre only next year. (I've read it but not seen it.) The third is this one. "The Happiest Song" works reasonably well as a stand-alone experience, somewhat akin to the way August Wilson's individual plays work, although it surely would be yet more resonant when seen in the right order with the same director.
To some extent, this is like watching season three of "Mad Men" before season one. So we'll have to wait for the combined staging to come. You can see that falling into place. Riesco, who is totally credible as one of those gung-ho young military guys with plenty of soul beneath, has played Elliot in all three plays now. He must be itching to show us his full trajectory. I'm itching to see it.
And Marquez, an actress without guile but with a full emotional toolbox, makes an excellent case for being the consummate Yaz.
The upside of this genesis is that Hudes has become a better and better writer as she has forged this tale over these years — the qualitative difference between this script and "Soldier's Fugue" is really something. Hudes now is a very accomplished storyteller, a playwright with an emergent, fulsome American narrative, a young writer who knows that her best material is not so far away, as long as she is willing to put her family out there.
When: Through May 12
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $14-$45 at 312-443-3800
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