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Article updated: 4/25/2013 6:30 AM

Goodman's 'Happiest Song' strikes false note

By Ted Cox

It's hard to say which is worse in the Goodman Theatre world-premiere production of "The Happiest Song Plays Last": Quiara Alegria Hudes' cliched script or the stilted acting.

The set, projecting images from elsewhere on the bare side wall of a North Philadelphia townhouse, isn't half bad, but if anyone leaves the theater whistling anything it won't be the scenery but the actual songs performed by Nelson Gonzalez.

Do yourself a favor and try to find a CD by Gonzalez rather than waste the time, effort and money it takes to see "The Happiest Song Plays Last."

"Happiest Song" is part of the Latino Theatre Festival, but the Goodman can't seem to do minority productions without pandering to the designated audience.

Even the last holdout FALN terrorist seeking independence for Puerto Rico would have a hard time defending "Happiest Song." The happiest thing about this last song is it brings to a close Hudes' trilogy loosely based on the life experiences of her cousin, a veteran of the most recent Iraq war.

"Happiest Song" finds Elliot, played with gung-ho gusto by Armando Riesco, back in Iraq -- well, kinda. He's shooting a film about Iraq in Jordan, where, hired on as a military consultant, he successfully usurps the leading man both in the overall production and in the eyes of leading lady Shar, played by Fawzia Mirza. He has also befriended a former Iraqi soldier serving as a colleague consultant; to keep things simple and straightforward, just call him Iraqi Tonto.

Meanwhile, back in North Philly, Elliot's cousin, Yaz, is for some reason entertaining the notion that she should help an aging, alcoholic musician pass on his genes by giving birth to his child. Why? With her flapping arms and stiff line readings, Sandra Marquez doesn't give any plausible reason why, but neither does Jaime Tirelli's charmless Agustin, the musician. For that matter, neither does Hudes' script.

Back in Iraq, I mean Jordan, they're watching the revolution slowly take place in Egypt two years ago. Surprise, surprise, Shar turns out to be a quarter Egyptian, prompting her to wonder, "Did you ever think you might be cracking open the book of your life for the first time?"

Did you ever find that book so cliched you slammed it shut in response? Watching an Egyptian woman cry on the TV coverage, Shar gushes, "Her tears are gleaming like shooting stars."

In this lame play, not even the dead are given the power of riveting speech. Agustin dies in a Health Care 101 waiting-room snafu that Yaz tries to milk for emotion in the retelling, but when his ghost shows up he starts talking about some Puerto Rican hurricane in which "the entire island was blowing like a hair dryer on high."

Yes, don't you just hate it when someone turns up a hair dryer as high as it can go against the thatched roof of your hut or the palm trees outside? Nothing more terrifying.

Meanwhile, Elliot and Yaz have been texting and Skyping against that townhouse wall through the entire first half of the production, yet somehow they go eight months without communicating. So Elliot shows up in Philly with a pregnant Shar at his side, and she and Yaz compare bellies. And what are they all talking about within two minutes? Not catching up, not the wonders of conception, not the anxiety of impending parenthood, but Shar and Elliot's adventures on the film-festival circuit. He could Skype from a remote Jordan set that mimics the Iraqi war zone, but why exactly couldn't he keep in touch with Yaz from the fests?

There isn't a single authentic moment in this contrived story.

Elliot can try to blame God in the end for the war-zone incident that continues to prey on his conscience, but you know what? It's your own fault.

No, make that the playwright's fault. Elliot fumbles at a quatro guitar trying to make the music Gonzalez does, and that serves as a fitting metaphor for the production.

The happiest song indeed plays last, because that at least means it's over.

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