Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Elliot Trilogy, which begins in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and the Pulitzer Prize-winner Water by the Spoonful, concludes in The Happiest Song Plays Last, which made its California premiere this weekend at the Latino Theater Company. Together, these three plays follow their central character, Elliot, over the course of nine years, beginning with his deployment to Iraq with the Marines and concluding with him attempting to follow his dreams of becoming an actor.
The Happiest Song Plays Last begins in 2010, only a year after the events depicted in Water by the Spoonful. Elliot’s cousin Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), who was woefully underserved in the previous play, takes center stage here. She has adopted the role Elliot’s mother, Ginny, once filled in the community of North Philadelphia, acting as a caretaker for the neighborhood. There is always hot food on the stove for anyone who may need it, the door is always open, and she is an activist within the community, speaking out for Puerto Rican rights and demanding better healthcare options. In Water by the Spoonful, Yaz was at a crossroads, newly divorced and unsure of her path and place in the world. While she ostensibly seems to have found a version of that since buying her late aunt’s home, much self-doubt still remains, particularly when it comes to romantic relationships. She has an ongoing flirtation with her neighbor, Agustin (Al Rodrigo), but is hesitant to act on it, preferring to spend her time fussing over her garden and her friends and neighbors, including Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a homeless man who affectionally calls her “mom.”
When we last saw Elliot (Peter Pasco), he had decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. That has led him to the country of Jordan, where he has leveraged his military expertise into landing the lead role in a low-budget indie film about war. Of course, returning to the Middle East for the first time since his deployment triggers a lot of demons he has never properly dealt with, specifically one ghost that has always haunted him—that of the first life he took while in the service. With the Egyptian revolution unfolding just a short drive away, Elliot, his co-star Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), and crew member Ali (Kamal Marayati) all have very different opinions on the roles they should or should not have in this piece of history. Elliot and Yaz often video chat with each other, tying their storylines together even while they are apart.
This piece of the trilogy stands a bit less easily on its own than Water by the Spoonful. Without knowing Elliot and Yaz’s family backstory, which is fairly glazed over here, their bond and situation would not ring as true as it does, particularly because the only scenes they share for the majority of the play occur over Skype. While Elliot’s storyline feels like more of a direct pick-up, Yaz’s almost feels like a decade has passed in a way that is a bit perplexing considering it has only been one year. The pill addiction Elliot battled during war injury that was mentioned but never fully serviced in Water by the Spoonful is never brought up here, although Elliot’s emotional journey of learning to cope with his actions during his time as a Marine comes to a mostly satisfying conclusion.
The reason I consider these three plays in conjunction is because they were marketed as such—this was the first time all three portions of Hudes’s trilogy were onstage at the same time in the same city, and like many theatergoers I saw them all in order, eager to see not only how each piece would stand alone but how each would inform the others. Ultimately, it was difficult to see Elliot as a consistent character, in large part due to the three very different interpretations the three actors opted for. This Elliot seemed to have an outwardly sunnier disposition than his counterpart just a year prior, which one could possibly chalk up to life experience and increased contentment—but do people change that much that quickly? On a smaller note, while Water by the Spoonful‘s Elliot walked with a pronounced limp, the lasting result of the severe leg injury incurred in Soldier’s Fugue, this Elliot seems a picture of physical health. While he is the common thread and the only one who appears in all three parts, in each he is overshadowed by more interesting characters. Here, both Ali and Shar have Middle Eastern heritage and distinct points of view on the Egyptian conflict that are more compelling than Elliot’s blind desire to run headfirst into what he sees as a moment of triumph and celebration.
Directed by Edward Torres, this play incorporates music, performed by special guest artist Nelson González along with the cast. Ultimately, The Happiest Song Plays Last is not incredibly notable on its own—the whole of the Elliot Trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts in this one instance. The ending felt a bit neat and contrived, perhaps striving a bit too hard for a “happy” conclusion as advertised—although I will admit, the place where it ends up is indeed the happiest relative to the often bleak events depicted in the rest of the trilogy.
The Happiest Song Plays Last runs through March 19th at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets start at $24 and can be purchased here. Performances for Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue have concluded, but tickets to Water by the Spoonful, which runs through March 11th, can be purchased here.