In Quiara Alegría Hudes’s new play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, Puerto Rican cousins Yaz and Elliot dwell on different continents but find parallel struggles for identity and social justice. Yaz (Lauren Vélez), a single music professor, tends to her crumbling North Philadelphia neighborhood and its beleaguered residents. Elliot (Armando Riesco), freshly discharged from Iraq, learns about refugees and revolution on a movie set in Jordan. They recount their discoveries via video chats until they can reunite.
You can hear faint echoes of August Wilson in this final play in Hudes’s trilogy (the second, Water by the Spoonful, won the 2012 Pulitzer for drama). A ghost speaks of a broken mystical guitar and others muse about a river of history running under the house in North Philly.
The narrative is thin, and Hudes stretches it long, to two hours and 20 minutes. But although the playwright draws with a weighty hand, the themes of a decaying America and a broken world still resonate in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s straightforward production. The set (by Michael Carnahan) says it all: wooden slats and arched doorframes that simultaneously suggest an old Victorian house in Philadelphia, a dwelling in the Middle East, and an open-air abode in the Caribbean. Channeling all of these locations, The Happiest Song forms a composite picture of a battle shared by outsiders the world over: They must strive to make good or set past injustices right, whether that’s in a distant desert or the backyard.