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Theatre in Review: Unknown Soldier (Playwrights Horizons)

Perry Sherman, Kerstin Anderson. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The upstage wall of Mark Wendland's set for Unknown Soldier features a clock without hands, an appropriate touch for a show in which the normal rules of time have been suspended: Characters from several eras spill across the stage, all the better to weave a web of time lost and love deferred. Unknown Soldier begins with a mysterious early-twentieth-century photograph that hints at family secrets -- the jumping-off point, perhaps, for a glossy historical romance. Instead, it evolves into a kind of Remembrance of Things Past for the Internet era, and, for a little while at least, you probably think you know where it's going. But don't be fooled: What first appears to be a prettily arranged tearjerker is in fact a surprisingly tough-minded meditation on love, loss, memory, and the stories -- true or not -- by which families live. It is the most original and accomplished new musical to turn up so far this season.

In 2003, Ellen Rabinowitz, a fortyish, unhappily married OB/GYN, much to her dismay, finds herself stuck back in Troy, New York, where she grew up and to which she hoped never to return. Her mother died in childbirth; she was raised by her grandmother, Lucy, who has passed away, leaving Ellen the house they once shared. Putting her career and marital problems on hold, Ellen has holed up there, ostensibly to clean it out before putting it on the market. (Ellen's dreaded sense of being stuck in a time loop is amusingly expressed in a number titled "The Worst Town in New York.") Instead, she is hiding out, taking refuge from a series of decisions she doesn't want to make.

Not for the first time, Ellen discovers a newspaper clipping, from 1920, featuring a photo of Lucy and an unidentified man in uniform, with the caption "Has unknown soldier found true love?" (In 1973, at the age of eleven, researching a school paper about the war, she inquired about it, only to get what-for from Lucy about going through her things.) The image makes no sense, since Ellen always understood that her grandfather died during the war; who could the soldier possibly be? The question is particularly intriguing since Lucy aged into a spiky, solitary, notably bitter old woman, who refused to discuss the past. Reaching out to Andrew Hoffman, a research librarian at Cornell -- the photo was taken in Ithaca -- Ellen tries to engage his interest. He demurs -- it isn't university business -- until she turns on the charm, and soon he is busily sleuthing for her and engaging in a kind of digital flirtation.

At this point, the pattern of Unknown Soldier seems clear: A pair of contemporary lonely hearts looking into the story of a forgotten romance and falling in love along the way. But as past and present unfold simultaneously, snaking around each other and forming a knot of unanswered questions, the authors, Daniel Goldstein (book and lyrics) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics), spin a darker and more complex tale. First, we get Lucy's standard account: As a young woman visiting New York City, she spends a summer day with a handsome stranger, impulsively marrying him before he ships off to Europe to defeat the Kaiser. This sequence is paced by a lovely, lilting waltz and gorgeous vocalizing by Kerstin Anderson, a Gibson Girl illustration come to life as Lucy. Interestingly, we don't see the young man, nor do we hear him speak.

We do, however, see Lucy's terrible slide into depression after she is widowed; indeed, she appears to be on the edge of a breakdown until she reads a newspaper story about an unknown soldier, afflicted with memory loss, who has been sent to a mental institution in Ithaca. Dubbed Francis Grand by the hospital staff and made the subject of a media frenzy -- "He's our favorite shell-shocked amnesia celebrity," crows the titillated chorus -- he draws visitors from far and wide, all of them hoping to find a lost loved one. Alas, he responds to none of them until Lucy appears. Even so, he remains largely silent and trapped in a mental fog -- and the mystery of his identity remains stubbornly unsolved.

Such are the seductions of romanticizing the past; as they become increasingly captivated by newly discovered evidence about Lucy and Francis, Ellen and Andrew draw closer to each other. But both are holding back major secrets and, when the issue of a relationship is forced, Ellen responds with the stunning number "I Give Away Children," in which she is made to face the decisions -- including her choices of career and spouse -- that have brought her to such a singularly unfulfilled moment. By now, the past is shedding all sorts of light on the present -- no more so than Lucy's rash attempt, in 1920, at cementing her connection to Francis; it's a decision with repercussions that last for decades, shocking Ellen into seeing how little she understands herself and her family history.

Trip Cullman's direction keeps the action moving lucidly through two centuries, shifting effortlessly from relatively naturalistic encounters to brazenly theatrical moments, such as "The Memory Song," which lays out the details of amnesia in vaudeville fashion. The director also provides many telling moments: The widowed Lucy, making breakfast for a spouse who isn't there, calling his name, first cheerfully, then increasingly desperately, as the lighting shifts from a colorful wash to stark white; a comic tussle, between the older Lucy and the very young Ellen, over a cigarette; a memory of a waltz that may never have happened, in which the young Lucy is replaced by the woman she will become. (The graceful choreography is by Patrick McCollum.)

Unknown Soldier floats across its ninety-minute running time on waves of music that, for all its surface elegance, contains surprising depths of longing and regret. Friedman, a much-lauded member of the New York theatre community, who died in 2017, much too young at 41, was often so prodigal with his gifts that, in previous shows, he could barely complete a melodic idea before conjuring up another. His work, while always attractive, wasn't always allowed to totally bloom. This score is so fully imagined and so consistently ravishing that the tragedy of his passing seems all the more acute. The lyrics are equally probing and poetic: "Are you a dream or a memory/That melts away/Like sugar into water," wonders Francis poignantly of Lucy; it's a question that hangs in the air, sadly unanswered.

The entire company of Unknown Soldier delivers, none more so than Margo Seibert as the frazzled, fuzzy-robed Ellen, who, dragged back to the scene of her loathed childhood, finds herself reaching for a deeper understanding of herself and the grandmother who resented her. Her handling of the musical numbers is as beautifully nuanced as her characterization is unsentimental. It's rare to find a performance that is both mordant and luminous, but that's exactly what she achieves here. Erik Lochtefeld, his thinning hair in perpetual disarray, his clothes permanently rumpled, captures Andrew's rapidly mounting midlife panic, especially making a fine bit of comic business out of Ellen's declaration that his voice, which bounces around the higher registers, is "disappointing." He also finds the finely tuned regret in "Andrew's Story," about a what-might-have-been encounter with a stranger that he has fetishized beyond reason.

In addition to Anderson, who also captures the young Lucy's heedless, headstrong nature, Perry Sherman is a handsome, fine-voiced figure of pity as Francis, forever probing the corners of his mind and finding nothing. As the doctor who treats Francis and disapproves of Lucy, Thom Sesma handles a couple of highly presentational numbers with élan. And Estelle Parsons makes the relatively small role of the elderly Lucy into a major event, nailing a character made sharp-tongued by disappointment yet still capable of a surpassing wistfulness.

Wendland's set, depicting the sterile interior of a modern library archive, transforms cleverly into a detailed Upstate toytown that glows from within. Ben Stanton's lighting lucidly keeps track of the characters and their time periods, fluidly marking the action's mood-shifts. The costumes, by Clint Ramos and Jacob A. Climber, contrast 1920s fashions -- when hemlines were just starting to rise and silhouettes were becoming less ample -- with Ellen's frumpy wardrobe, which perfectly matches her emotional disarray; the initial appearance by the young Ellen, dressed in lime green and red on the gray-white set, makes a strong statement, indicating the disruptive force that she will prove to be. Leon Rothenberg's sound design is perfectly transparent, proving absolutely crucial to the telling of the story.

For Unknown Soldier is a story about stories -- those we tell ourselves to get through the day and those that might actually be true. As the stunning eleven o'clock number, "Penelope," puts it, reframing the story of Lucy and Francis through the frame of The Odyssey, "There are stories left out of history/Men forget their homes/Ships get lost at sea/Children run away/From their family/You can't keep them safe/You have to let them be." Looking at this meticulous and moving piece of work, it's easy to believe that Friedman was on the brink of a new creative heyday; this show makes an unusually fine last will and testament. -- David Barbour


(10 March 2020)

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