The latest play to reach New York by Anna Ziegler, author of Photography 51, Boy, The Last Match and Actually, has a complicated structure she appears to have invented. The Wanderers, her fascinating study of faith, love and fulfillment, parallels two Jewish couples a generation apart who appear to have been each other’s destiny (the Jewish concept of “bashert”) but who do not seem to be able to live together successfully. The play also has an email correspondence between a celebrated and controversial novelist and a Hollywood film star played by Katie Holmes, who really is a Hollywood film star. Barry Edelstein who also directed the play’s world premiere at The Old Globe theatre in San Diego keeps the separate parts bubbling along but without achieving the depth of character that the play implies.
Framed by Sophie reading from her memoir to be called The Wanderers, the play alternates in captioned and titled chapters which apply to two Jewish couples in living in Brooklyn two generations apart. The play begins with the wedding of the Satmar Hasidic sect Schumli and Esther in 1973, put together in an arranged marriage after Esther has turned down three other too traditional choices. Alternating with their story is that of the marriage of famed Jewish-American novelist Abe, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, and his wife Sophie, a biracial woman whose mother is a Hasidic white woman and her father is an African American college professor. She has published an ambitious historical novel that has failed with both critics and readers. When Abe gives a reading at the Greenlight Bookstore in 2015, Julia Cheever, his favorite American film star, is sitting in the first row, and then emails him to thank him for his insights.
This leads to a year and a half correspondence between Julia and Abe while he slowly falls in love with her from afar. In between are scenes between the two couples whose marriages are crumbling: Esther feels restricted by the Hasidic rules concerning books, music and ideas, while her inexperienced husband expects total obedience to all of the traditional rules. After three children, two girls and a boy, she is considering going on the pill to prevent further pregnancies. That is when Schmuli takes things into his own hands to bring her back into the strict fold.
After ten years of marriage, Sophie has just about had it with her overly intellectual husband Abe who is constantly whining about his life and art and the upbringing of their two children. Doing almost all of the work around the house as well as child rearing has left Sophie with little time to write her second book. Abe, on the other hand, who seems to be having writer’s block, obsesses over his childhood, Orthodox parents, lapsed Judaism, and the too familiar daily habit of his marriage. Abe reveals to Julia secrets he has never told his wife and is flattered that she seems to be doing the same. Spending more and more time on his correspondence with Julia, Abe finds that his wife accepts his absences from the family life while she must step up to the bat – until she refuses to take it anymore.
The play also works as a mystery as we don’t know the connection between the two couples until well-past the middle of the play. The internet correspondence between Abe and Julia is at times handled like a reading and at others as though they are sitting next to each other chatting face to face. This is not a problem as Instagram, Face Time and Snap Chat allow for those kinds of interactions.
The play appears to have been inspired by the online correspondence between novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and actress Natalie Portman which may have led to the breakup of his marriage to novelist Nicole Krauss and has fascinated playwright Ziegler since she read the published segments. At times, The Wanderers with its ambiguous and metaphoric title seems like three different stories, but both Ziegler and Edelstein keep the parts neatly together. The strange library like set with manuscript pages covering the entire walls, a huge table with chairs, and piles of books designed by Marion Williams allows for the fluid transitions between stories and scenes.
The Hasidic couple is the more successful of the two as they are so much clearly defined. As Esther, the free-thinking liberal Jewish woman born into a restrictive environment, Lucy Freyer is feisty and clear-headed while trying to negotiate the unfulfilling existence she is living. As her conventional husband Schmuli, Dave Klasko recreating his role from The Old Globe production is interesting as the conflicted Hasidic who alternates between admiring his iconoclastic wife and resenting her for being different than the other women in his Williamsburg community.
As the contemporary hotshot novelist, Eddie Kaye Thomas is fine as Abe, a man who has trouble living in his skin, both with the guilt over his childhood and the responsibility his fame and work has brought him. However, he cannot keep Abe seeming a petulant child who has never grown up but this could be as much a fault of the writing as the acting. In the most difficult role of a woman dealing with the weight of both slavery and the Holocaust, Sarah Cooper is not given enough to say or do as this underwritten character. As film star Julia Cheever, Katie Holmes is low-key and restrained, not showing the luminous qualities that Abe admires her for. However, this may mean that we are to see her though the lens of the internet rather than Julia’s screen persona.
Anna Ziegler’s The Wanderers is a fascinating comparison of new and old world beliefs as contemporary couples attempt to negotiate both their ethical systems and their marital situations. Both couples find they are most at odds with bringing up their children, a not so surprising state of affairs. While the play is not as detailed as it might be in all respects, it is always absorbing, while not as heartfelt as it might be. The engaging cast helps keeps interest high in this intermission-less new drama.
The Wanderers (extended through April 2, 2023)
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-719-1300 or visit http://www.roundabouttheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes without an intermission