Rotating repertory—when a theater puts on two different plays on an alternating schedule—is no joke, and Profile Theatre’s latest approach, pairing Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful and The Happiest Song Plays Last, is commendably ambitious—actors are double-cast in both plays, and there’s even a dual-purpose set.
Last February, Profile introduced us to Hudes’ Puerto Rican military family in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, and their story continues in these final two installments of her play cycle. Anthony Lam reprises his role as the bubbly, boyish Elliot, a marine who’s returned from Iraq and is now seeking television work. Crystal Ann Muñoz is a new addition to the cast as Yaz, Elliot’s disciplined music professor cousin. Their incongruous dynamic is one of Hudes’ most delightful inventions, and it’s most effective in Water by the Spoonful.
If you can only make it to one play, it should be that one. It’s a Pulitzer winner and a surprisingly touching, tightly focused piece that both fleshes out Elliot’s earlier story and stands on its own. It also stars Julana Torres, one of those actors who can bring warmth and humanity to even the most complex, unlikable characters. Here she’s Odessa, a recovering drug addict who’s been clean for years and now works a menial job and moderates an online forum for fellow addicts. Hudes takes her time with Odessa, positioning her forum participants’ lives as a foil to the main storyline about Elliot and Yaz until both cohere in a way that’s both heartbreaking and narratively satisfying.
Meanwhile, The Happiest Song Plays Last is easily the weakest link in the trilogy. While its predecessors were precisely focused, this play takes on the Arab Spring, healthcare activism, Hollywood, and the Iraq War—it’s just too much paint. It also introduces new characters who never seem quite believable—there’s Shar (Dre Slaman), an Egyptian American actress whose dialogue consists of little aside from dubiously emotive monologues and raving about bath salts, and Ali (Wasim No’Mani), an Iraqi film advisor who basically becomes a human vessel for Elliot’s guilt about the war.
A romantic plot in Yaz’s story is also unconvincing—she decides to enlist her much older neighbor, Agustin, to get her pregnant. While played admirably by Jimmy Garcia (the way he sings “vocal cords” will BREAK YOU), neither this relationship nor the one that all too predictably develops between Elliot and Shar is convincing, especially not when contrasted with the chemistry between Muñoz and Lam. It forms the heart of Profile’s dual production—theatrical evidence that sometimes the closest, most lasting ties are platonic.