Estelle Parsons’ enduring magnetic sunniness enriches her brief appearances in the laggard new musical Unknown Soldier. The 92-year-old Ms. Parsons vividly portrays a stern grandmother who tells a few jokes and sings a little.
This choppy John Irving-style saga wanly blends time-shifting with romantic drama for a dense, cloying and dull 90 minutes. Daniel Goldstein’s original book is an uninvolving patchwork of hoary clichés reminiscent of Nicholas Sparks’ works, the opening foreshadows the strained cuteness to follow.
In 1973, a Troy, New York, 10-year-old girl (overly perky child performer Zoe Glick) sings about the events of W.W. I as she’s writing a school report on the subject. Her mother died in childbirth and she lives with her grandmother. Through flashbacks, we learn that the grandmother had a true whirlwind one-day romance and marriage to a young man who went off to war and disappeared. A few years later, a W.W. I veteran suffering from amnesia ends up in a mental institution. After seeing an item about this in the newspaper the grandmother visits him. Is he her presumed dead husband?
In 2003, the grandmother has died and the girl is now a 41-year-old morose obstetrician who has returned from New York City to settle the estate and discovers a bounty of her grandmother’s ephemera. Through emails, she enlists a geeky middle-aged Cornell University librarian to assist her in solving the mystery of her grandmother’s past. They eventually meet and a Nora Ephron-type romantic involvement ensues.
The tepid score struggles to match the material with many songs coming across as irrelevant filler that have little connection to the plot. Characters sing about their cities, themselves or enact personal anecdotes. A lame attempt at a razzle dazzle production number is a hospital scene with a doctor and medical workers that has the sense of a cut sequence from Follies or Chicago.
The declarative lyrics are written by Mr. Goldstein and the show’s composer Michael Friedman. Mr. Friedman was a notable musical theater figure who died of HIV-related causes in 2017, at the age of 41. With its derivative melodies echoing Stephen Sondheim, John Kander and William Finn, Unknown Soldier is not a posthumous masterpiece.
Apart from Parsons, the cast for the most part lacks the charisma to transcend their stilted roles. Margo Seibert and Erik Lochtefeld both possess charm, but both overdo their parts as the middle-aged couple. Kerstin Anderson exhibits flair as the younger version of the grandmother. The commanding Thom Sesma’s doctor is a delightful song and dance man. As the amnesiac soldier, Perry Sherman’s operatic singing is about the only thing that registers. The ensemble of Jay McKenzie, Jessica Naimy, James Crichton and Emilie Kouatchou does nicely in their periodic turns in multiple roles.
Prolific director Trip Cullman’s efficient staging gives such a patchy piece as much momentum as possible in concert with Patrick McCollum’s pleasant choreography. There are some neat presentational moments recalling Ragtime’s grandeur that are enhanced by Clint Ramos and Jacob A Climer’s splendid multi-period costume design. To convey the temporal fluctuations, scenic designer Mark Wendland’s antiseptic gray environment does the job aided by Ben Stanton’s zingy lighting design. Lucy Mackinnon’s clever projection design whimsically takes us to Grand Central Terminal among other places. Sound designer Leon Rothenberg renders the music and effects with polish.
Unknown Soldier is defeated by an arsenal of flaws.
Unknown Soldier (through March 12, 2020)
Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission