‘Unknown Soldier’ Theater Review: Michael Friedman’s Musical Explores the Fuzziness of Memory

Estelle Parsons stands out in a new musical by a composer who tragically died too young

unknown soldier
Photo: Joan Marcus

Michael Friedman, the prolific theater composer who died in 2017 of complications from HIV/AIDS just nine weeks after his diagnosis, created a remarkable body of work in his 41 too-brief years, from the Broadway sensation “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” to a musical version of the 2004 indie film “Saved” to an acclaimed musical update of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” He also left behind a trunkful of unfinished projects, one of which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons: a heartfelt and original chamber musical called “Unknown Soldier.”

The book, by Daniel Goldstein (who also contributed lyrics), charts a meandering path between 2003, when Manhattan OB-GYN Ellen Rabinowitz (Margo Seibert) begins sorting through the belongings of the cranky grandmother who raised her, and the 1970s, when a younger Ellen (Zoe Glick, a standout) bristles at her chilly upbringing at the hands of her late mother’s mother, Lucy (Estelle Parsons). Finding an old photograph of a much younger Lucy (Kerstin Anderson) with a World War I soldier (Perry Sherman, a bit of a cipher), the thirtysomething Ellen begins an investigation into the past — and eventually uncovers clues about her grandmother and the tragic circumstances that shaped her family’s history.

Alas, not all of the stories carry equal dramatic weight. The strongest thread is the “Martin Guerre”-like story that emerges from the past, in which Lucy seeks out a shell-shocked World War I veteran who has no memory of his name or background, convinced that he must be the soldier she met and impulsively married just before he shipped off overseas to the battlefield. But is he? Does wishing make it so?

It’s a compelling story, amplified by some of Friedman’s most soaringly romantic melodies — which are well sung and occasionally supplemented by catchier music-hall-style tunes, like a comic detour into various types of amnesia that serves as a break from the more serious tone that otherwise dominates the 90-minute, intermissionless production.

But “Unknown Soldier” also meanders with more a contemporary plot thread, involving Lucy’s now-grown, emotionally raw granddaughter trying to piece together this archival tale — with the help of an actual Cornell archivist (Erik Lochtefeld), a kindred spirit who’s also stuck in a dead-end marriage and who shares her curiosity in the subject. They too are given some lovely songs to sing, including one about Ellen’s hometown of Troy, N.Y., as “The Worst Town in New York.” But despite their best efforts, including Seibert’s delightfully grounded matter-of-factness, these more contemporary characters never emerge as fully flesh-and-blood.

Parsons fares better as the older Lucy, whose resentment of her granddaughter becomes clearer as the story develops. And at 92, the Oscar winner remains a scene-stealer — even when, as here, she is given too little to do.

Director Trip Cullman, a longtime friend and collaborator of Friedman’s, supplements the story with a scenic design (by Mark Wendland) that is both understated and fussy — archival boxes are opened and shuffled about, projections (by Lucy Mackinnon) suggest new locations in the broadest of strokes. It’s as if they are trying to underscore visually just how fuzzy, how nonspecific memory can be. There is a lot to admire in “Unknown Soldier.” But in a story about regrets, the biggest one here may how this show might have evolved had Friedman lived to bring it to the stage.