Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy about the journey of Iraq War veteran Elliot Ortiz comes to an appropriately warm conclusion in The Happiest Song Plays Last, now playing at Off Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre through March 23. No, you don’t need to have seen the previous incarnations (Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue and the surprise 2012 Pulitzer winner Water by the Spoonful). This time, the tortured yet playful Elliot (portrayed by the intensely charismatic Armando Riesco, who’s been in the previous productions) finds himself in Jordan, training a pampered actor who’s been cast in a contemporary war movie. Elliot strikes the fancy of an overachieving actress (Annapurna Sriram) and earns a pal in Ali (Dariush Kashani), a production assistant wrestling with his own troubled past. When the actor bails on his military training, Elliot assumes the onscreen role. He soon experiences unexpected success as a film festival darling, but his tragedy-laced past keeps him from truly enjoying it.
Meanwhile, Elliot’s beloved cousin Yaz (Dexter’s Lauren Vélez) tries to reconnect with her Puerto Rican roots by becoming a one-woman food bank, activist, and caretaker to her North Philadelphia neighborhood. The locals include an eccentric homeless man (Anthony Chisholm), who affectionately calls her ”Mom,” and a randy, drunken cuarto musician (Tony Plana) who would like nothing more than to make the decades-younger Yaz his lady. All the while, a terrace band (led by Cuban Tres master guitarist Nelson González) underscores the action below — and even provides some choice sound effects.
For a play with just six characters, The Happiest Song keeps a lot of pots boiling. Hudes tosses in everything from the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt to PTSD for war veterans to outcry over national health care. As in other works (like her not-quite-credible book for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights), she wields her words a bit too bluntly. The health-care outrage that fuels a considerable part of Act 2 feels less organic than the other topics she introduces, not to mention the fact that Anna Deavere Smith’s 2009 solo drama Let Me Down Easy covered much of the same ground more urgently on the very same stage.
But Hudes has an admirable affection for her characters, and director Ruben Santiago-Hudson proves that he is a deft handler of ensembles and shifts of tone. Still, the ravishing Vélez never quite seems like a woman who’d consider bedding down a man who self-describes as ”like a shoe that’s been left in the closet too many years.” Song carries a good tune, but is still a few hits short of a classic album. B