The Review: Playwrights Horizons’ Unknown Soldier
The men and women in gray work at their gray tables going over papers pulled from gray boxes. They are, in the words of book and lyricist writer, Daniel Goldstein (Row; Orange Crush), “interested in figuring out how the past and the present merge, how objects trace through time, and how your history is more fluid than you think” and in that conceptualization played out before it even begins, the Unknown Soldier finds its true sense of self and soul. It’s also a compelling emotional core for the piece, particularly because of the tragedy of music and lyricist writer Michael Friedman (The Drunken City; The Fortress of Solitude) who died quite suddenly before this new musical could make its way to the stage. Losing a man of such talent so early in his life is such a calamity, but together with Goldstein, they luckily left behind a touchingly engaging tale that is both musically lovely and heartbreaking in its desperate need for redemption.
“I wanna know what happened” proclaims the young Ellen, purposefully portrayed by Zoe Glick (Broadway’s Frozen) to a grandmother that she describes as “horrible“. Estelle Parsons (Public’s A Bright Room Called Day) portrays that elderly woman etched with discomfort and an unknown sadness. She was once the young and wide-eyed Lucy Lemay, beautifully portrayed by Kerstin Anderson (Broadway’s My Fair Lady) who stands so upright and smiling that we can hardly see how one would become the other. But that clear-eyed optimism and desire has long vanished from the woman’s face. Parsons breaks hearts just standing there holding tight to a newspaper clipping that has ignited the young girl’s curiosity. We feel the problematic sadness engulf the old woman, without nary a word, but it’s clear that the story ahead has a lot to do with that troubled guilty stare into the past. The granddaughter’s curiosity never fades though, and when that same young girl returns to her now dead grandmother’s home in the adult form of a very lost OB-GYN named Ellen Rabinowitz, the quest for understanding is reignited. Embodied by the vocally talented Margo Seibert (Signature’s Octet), Ellen can’t let go the need to understand after finding, once again, that 1918 newspaper clipping once. It sets her off on a journey back in time, prompting her to send an email to a pretty vague address at Cornell in hopes of finding some information that is unavailable to her. At first she is quite hopeless, but in an unlikely twist of faith, along with some questionable timelines throughout the musical, she gets a response from an easily attached Andrew Hoffman, delicately portrayed with earnestness by Erik Lochtefeld (PH’s The Light Years) who jumps on the bandwagon as she tries to discover her familial history of romanticised love and desperate attachment.
With director Trip Cullman (Broadway’s Choir Boy; Lobby Hero) and choreographer Patrick McCollum (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit) at the helm, pushing the table tops around with creative abandonment on the captivating Playwrights Horizons stage, designed with artistic free wheeling by Mark Wendland (ATC’s The Mother), with a strong assist from costume designers, Clint Ramos (Broadway’s Grand Horizons) & Jacob A. Climer (MCC’s Relevance), captivating lighting by Ben Stanton (PH’s The Pain of My Belligerence), and a centered sound design by Leon Rothenberg (Broadway’s Hillary and Clinton), the musical swings with protective force from the past to the present. A large circular clock/moon hangs overhead teases us that in the world of romance, time is almost irrelevant (as it doesn’t quite add up a number of times throughout the tale). Somewhere inside this romantic musical of delusional attachment needs and desires, Ellen needs to know about her grandmother’s past. And the core of that question revolves around the name of the Unknown Soldier, played with stoic solidness by a very pretty handsome Perry Sherman (Broadway’s Fun Home). He is, quite ironically, Francis Grand, named thus by his caring doctor, joyously portrayed by Thom Sesma (CSC’s The Resistible Rise…), who leads, what is the most fun and silly number of the night, a song about memory loss, that is both funny and sad, all rolled up in a vaudevillian song and dance. Does it really fit stylistically into this moody mystery that blossomed out of on a true story where a French soldier with no memory of who he is or was, was found standing alone at the Lyon train station after WWI? Probably not, but the pleasure it brings is pure, and the melodies seemingly precious to those driving this train.
Who that Unknown Soldier is and was to Ellen’s grandmother, for reasons that are somewhat unclear, is more important than his name. In the picture, her grandmother is sitting under a tree having a picnic with this soldier, but what direction is this newspaper story pointing to? So the quest to comprehend this photo in comparison to an often told story of who and what happened to Ellen’s grandfather, gets underway. I was never quite sure from the lyrics why this mattered so much to the complicated and emotionally distraught Ellen, other than trying to unearth the reason for her grandmother’s sad eyes, but with the help of the needy researcher, Andrew, they dig into those gray boxes, hoping to unpack the missing link that might help Ellen to get back into the game of the living.
It seems pretty clear from the beginning that the young and impressionable Lucy is fueled by a desire to believe in the stereotypical fantasy life she created based on that time in Grand Central. It never is entirely clear where her historical creation truly began, but it seems like that wildly romantic bumping into actually took place, and the deadly letter delivered by an officer was the outcome, but it’s hard to know for sure. Maybe that’s as delusional as the tale. Regardless of where and when reality steps in (we each had our idea), Lucy tries hard to deal with the shame of her irrational lusty behavior that one wild night in New York City when she meets and dives headfirst into the arms of John Anderson, a man among many who were being shipped out to a War that would bury so many of them. And finds a way to believe, at least for the time being, that Francis Grand just might be the one she lost but can’t fully say goodbye to. I wish we didn’t have to say goodbye to the recently lost musical genius, Michael Friedman, because in Unknown Soldier, we see a gentleness and sincerity, alongside a few complex questions on shame and guilt, that was only just beginning to take shape and form. More would have likely come from this talented man, and for that, I feel the heaviness. To his family and friends, I am so sorry for your loss. It truly must be heartbreaking. To the theatrical world that he was a growing part of, we feel a type of loss as well, Not as great, but a true sadness for all the music that he would have made that will never see or be heard under the bright full moon of time.