BWW Review: Michael Friedman/Daniel Goldstein's Captivating UNKNOWN SOLDIER Explores The Unreliability Of Memory And The Romance Of Imagination
For BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson, Michael Friedman whipped up an emo rock score that comically skewered white male privilege. For LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST his music and lyrics embraced the open-hearted awkwardness of lovers testing the waters of adulthood, and in THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, they nostalgically provided a tapestry of pop harmonies, soul and rap. And then there was the abundance of fresh material created for The Civilians, the investigative theatre company he co-founded.
The tragedy of the 41-year-old's loss in 2017 from complications related to HIV/AIDS was not only felt personally by his loved ones, but by the theatre community as a whole, imagining the future creations that may have been granted by this prolific and versatile artist.
UNKNOWN SOLDIER, a lovely and emotionally thick chamber piece about the unreliability of memory and the romance of imagination, was a work in progress collaboration with bookwriter/co-lyricist Daniel Goldstein and director Tripp Cullman that premiered at Williamstown Theater Festival in 2015. After further revisions, it now arrives at Playwrights Horizons, not just as a captivating theatre piece, but as another example of Friedman's mastery of musical theatre's plot-and-character-infused dramatics, sounding nothing like his previous New York productions.
"Did you know that World War One was called the war to end all wars?", sings 11-year-old Ellen (vibrant bundle of energy Zoe Glick), practicing her school history presentation assignment.
But while her report begins as a list of commonly-known facts ("Did you know that World War One began 'cause somebody decided to assassinate the archduke of an empire that nobody remembers anymore?"), it evolves into subject matter that addresses the story about to unfold ("Did you know that World War One was how we know that war can make people crazy, like a bomb ripped out a part of who they used to be?") and hints at the motivations that will propel her character's actions ("I think sometimes you see a picture or hear a song or read a letter and a person that's forgotten comes alive for a moment.").
It's 1973 in Troy, New York, and Ellen, who never knew her parents, is being raised by her maternal grandmother Lucy (Estelle Parsons, who, at 92, can still belt a tune and dance a waltz), who doesn't like to talk about the past.
But the past talks to Ellen thirty years later (she's now a glibly-humored OB-GYN played by Margo Seibert), when, after Lucy's passing, she finds among her belongings an old photograph clipped from a newspaper that interested Ellen as a child. It's captioned "Has Unknown Soldier Found True Love?" and shows a doughboy veteran on a picnic with a young woman who the 11-year-old suspected was her grandmother. An email to the Cornell University archives connects her with sweetly nerdy Andrew (Erik Lochtefeld), and things get a bit flirtatious as they attempt to unravel a family mystery.
A flashback to the war years shows the chance meeting at Grand Central Station, whirlwind romance and impulsive marriage between younger Lucy (Kerstin Anderson) and the soldier (Perry Sherman) on the eve of his getting shipped off to Europe, where he'll be reported killed.
But when news gets out of an amnesiac soldier who was found wandering through Grand Central and is being treated by a doctor in Troy (Thom Sesma, who, with ensemble members, supplies vaudevillian comic relief), Lucy wonders if this could be her supposedly dead husband.
As the story weaves the interactions between younger and older representations of two women, spanning four time periods, Friedman's music, played by conductor Julie McBride's five piece ensemble, also weaves through generations, supplying a sweeping waltz, period pop, introspective interludes and traditional showtune.
The generation-spanning costumes by Clint Ramos and Jacob A. Climer jump out against the plain gray that washes Mark Wendland's set, a collection of tables and boxes that represent the dry facts hidden in the past that fade to obscurity when compared with lovely, but unreliable memories.