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Unknown Soldier

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 9, 2020

Jay McKenzie, Perry Sherman, Kerstin Anderson,
and James Crichton

Photo by Joan Marcus
Michael Friedman left us far too soon. The composer-lyricist of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Gone Missing, and various works for The Civilians passed away at age 41 in 2017. And judging from Unknown Solider, one of his last works, now in production at Playwrights Horizons, he was just hitting his stride. Unknown Soldier, written with frequent collaborator Daniel Goldstein (librettist and co-lyricist), reveals a more expansive palette than Friedman ever used before. He's writing in many styles, from pastiche to operatic to sorta-Sondheim, and he melds them well to tell an affecting story. It's not a completely successful effort, but it does show that Friedman hadn't stopped growing.

Consider his and Goldstein's achievement: an original story, set in four different time periods spanning 1914 to a century later, with two principal characters portrayed by two different actors as their older and younger selves, like Little Me times two. Time and place are always perfectly clear, even when different times and places are being depicted simultaneously and commenting on one another. We start in 1973, when young Ellen (Zoe Akins, adorable) is writing a school report on World War I, supervised distractedly by her rather awful grandmother Lucy (Estelle Parsons-Estelle Parsons!). They are their only living relatives, Ellen's mom having died in childbirth, and they live together in a dilapidated house in Troy—"The Worst Town in New York," in one of Friedman's more felicitous songs. Rummaging through Lucy's voluminous papers, Ellen has her curiosity piqued by a newspaper photo from 1920—a war veteran and a pretty young woman who might be Lucy 53 years ago, with the caption, "Has Unknown Soldier Found True Love?"

Flash-forward to 2003, and the grown-up Ellen (Margo Siebert) is at that same Troy kitchen table, emailing Cornell University's research library, seeking assistance on finding out more about that same photo. The email is processed by Andrew (Eric Lochtefeld, excellent), a sad-sack fortyish researcher with seemingly not much life beyond that library. Which, incidentally, occupies most of the stage, in Mark Wendland's striking set design. Gray walls, gray desks and chairs, gray boxes of folders being combed through by researchers in mostly gray clothes (the period-appropriate costumes are by Clint Ramos and Jacob A. Climer). Anyway, thus is another of several plot threads introduced, as Ellen and Andrew endeavor to uncover the distant past, which comes alive for us behind them upstage.

Or does it? Goldstein and Friedman are writing in part about subjective reality, and madness, and how troubled spirits reinvent their histories and how that affects the future. We're whirled back to 1918, watching Lucy's version of reality, where her younger self (Kerstin Anderson) snuck down to New York City, bumped into a soon-to-depart soldier (Perry Sherman), and undertook a one-day New York courtship-marriage much as Judy Garland and Robert Walker did one war later in The Clock. The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than Lucy's account of it, and it involves a returning amnesiac soldier dispensed to an upstate mental hospital and the doctor (Thom Sesma) trying to trigger his memory. Meantime, or in another time, there's the research effort of Ellen and Andrew and the almost-romance happening between them, and what each is withholding from the other. And the 1920 public stirred by the "unknown soldier" story, and Ellen's guilt over her profession (she's an OB-GYN) and her mother's death, and Andrew's sad memory of a lost love, and the younger Ellen's school report, and how it all wraps up and what happens in a chance reencounter between Ellen and Andrew years later.

Perry Sherman, Estelle Parsons, and Kerstin Anderson
Photo by Joan Marcus
It's a lot to cram into one act. Just as we're getting to know Ellen or young Ellen or Lucy or older Lucy or Andrew or the confused unknown soldier, wham, we're in a different time period with different concerns. They're all good stories, but they keep getting interrupted, and they don't progress naturally. The humor's practically nil, and what there is of it, notably a broad vaudevillean number for the doctor and his nurses that rhymes "amnesia," "anesthesia," and "Polynesia," feels forced. Lucy, Andrew, and Ellen all possess less-than-stellar qualities—they're variously deceptive, selfish, cruel and morose. It's admirable of the authors to present such well-rounded, unprettified characters, but it does make them hard to root for.

Friedman compensates somewhat with what is probably the widest-ranging, hardest-working score he ever wrote. He's fond of waltzes here, and one, a wartime farewell that strongly resembles "'Til Tomorrow," from Fiorello!, is particularly lovely. There's much recitative, and ragtime for the newspaper-reading masses, and two earnest but overextended I-hate-my-life showpieces for Ellen and Andrew. The two also share a too-long moment about a "Milkshake," which we may take to mean something else. Then there's the addled unknown soldier remembering this pretty woman who visited him every day for months, rhapsodizing, "You melted like sugar into water." What that means, I've no idea.

Friedman and Goldstein rhyme neatly when they mean to, and they repeat a lot: "Is this the last time?" six times, and young Ellen's (and later other characters') "I want to know what happened" several, which does acquire force as it mutates into obsession. That goes for the spoken text, too: The newly widowed Lucy, cheerily singing while preparing breakfast for her sleeping husband, then repeatedly yelling "John!" as her delusion catches up with her, is as heartbreaking as it intends to be, especially in Anderson's finely calibrated rendering.

There are production issues. Evocative as that initial gray research library set is, it doesn't transform convincingly into Grand Central, two hospitals, or a picnic hilltop. Lucy Mackinnon's projections, mostly clouds, don't contribute a lot to the mood. Patrick McCollum's choreography, perhaps unavoidably for this un-dancey story, is minimal. There's a proficient ensemble, but they disappear for long stretches and in the end haven't much to do but move file boxes. Trip Cullman's direction, which zeroes in on the acutely painful emotions suffered by the unfulfilled souls at the center, is a plus.

The voices, particularly those of Seibert and the high-note-reaching Sherman, are beautiful, and Parsons, at 92, goes in for some delectable harmonizing, not to mention a bit of waltzing. The disparate elements of Unknown Soldier are interwoven craftily, and Friedman's score, when not resting on a single emotion for too long, is an eloquent reminder of a prodigious talent cut down too early. The story, or stories, don't hang entirely together, and the emotional payoff isn't as mighty as it aims to be. But it's a strong effort with many rewarding moments. Let's call this one accomplished.

Unknown Soldier
Through March 29, 2020
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: Playwrights Horizons