By Donna Herman
I go so you know
“Unknown Soldier,” currently enjoying its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, is a poignant reflection on the unreliability of memory. With book and lyrics by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by the late Michael Friedman, it is a multi-generational mystery story that spans the years between 1918 and 2003. A fact that should perhaps be made a little clearer either in the program or production. Had the current global mania for DNA testing been available in 2003, the story would be very different.
The story revolves around Ellen Rabinowitz and her grandmother Lucy. In 1973, Young Ellen (Zoe Glick) is 11-years-old and writing a report on World War I while being raised by her grandmother Lucy Anderson nee Lemay who is then in her 80’s (Estelle Parsons). They live in the house in Troy, NY where Lucy grew up. Young Ellen finds an old newspaper clipping from 1919 with the headline Has Unknown Soldier Found True Love? Underneath the headline is a picture of a young soldier and her grandmother as a young girl, Lucy Lemay (Kerstin Anderson) having a picnic. Young Ellen is filled with questions which her irascible grandmother refuses to answer. We meet Ellen in 2003 (Margo Seibert), when she is a 40-year-old OBGYN and has come back to Troy to clean out the house she just inherited due to her grandmother’s passing. She once again comes across the clipping and becomes obsessed with figuring out the mystery of who the Unknown Soldier is and why her always cross grandmother looked so happy.
The set is a light grey box with light grey file boxes scattered around it and a few tables and chairs. While the audience files in, one, then two, then more people start showing up on the stage, clearly researching something. There is a clock with no hands hanging upstage center. During the first scene in 1973 when Young Lucy comes out and sings a song about World War I, the researchers in the background take out light grey buildings from some of the boxes and place them on top and their windows light up. Creating a village around the back of the stage. It’s soft and enchanting. The action then moves to 1918 and Grand Central Station where young Lucy Lemay has run away for a day and meets a young soldier who we never see. She spends the day and night with him, marries him and then he ships out. She will never see him again as he gets killed in a trench in Flanders.
Or will she? Who is the Unknown Soldier (Perry Sherman)? Is he indeed her husband John Anderson who somehow managed to survive even though the army thought he was dead? Or is he someone else who Lucy convinces herself is him because her grief is so great? Unfortunately, this was an extremely confusing plot point, even for a mystery. I found myself taken out of the moment trying to figure out what was actually going on and debating it afterwards with my guest, trying to come to some conclusion about what the sequence of events was actually meant to be. I think if Mr. Friedman had lived to work on the piece further, it would have matured into a more fully realized piece.
As it is, it is certainly thought provoking, the staging by Trip Cullman is very inventive, the period choreography by Patrick McCollum is evocative and appropriate, and the performances are excellent. Young Zoe Glick steals every scene she is in and Kerstin Anderson is radiant with an absolutely angelic voice. Estelle Parsons is a tad underused, but Erik Lochtefeld and Margo Seibert are a perfectly matched pair of neurotic messes. Their scenes together are terrifically engaging.
“Unknown Soldier” Book and Lyrics by Daniel Goldstein, Music and Lyrics by Michael Friedman, Directed by Trip Cullman, Choregraphed by Patrick McCollum
WITH: Zoe Glick (Young Ellen/Lucy Rabinowitz); Erik Lochtefeld (Andrew Hoffman); Estelle Parsons (Lucy Anderson); Kerstin Anderson (Lucy Lemay); Perry Sherman (Francis Grand aka Unknown Soldier); Margo Seibert (Ellen Rabinowitz); Thom Sesma (Doctor); James Crichton (Ensemble); Jay McKenzie (Ensemble); Jessica Naimy (Ensemble).
MUSICIANS: Julie McBride (Conductor/Piano); Joel Lambdin (Violin/Guitar); Melody Giron (Cello); Mike Dobson (Percussion); Zac Zinger (Reeds)
Scenic Design by Mark Wendland; Costume Design by Clint Ramos & Jacob A. Climer; Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon; Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by J. Jared Janas; Orchestrations by Michael Friedman & Marco Paguia; Music Director, Julie McBride; Music Coordinator, Tomoko Akaboshi; Production Stage Manager, Lisa Ann Chernoff; Assistant Stage Manager, Ben Freedman. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, 410 West 42nd Street. Due to Covid-19 all upcoming performances have been cancelled.