By: Samuel L. Leiter
February 16, 2023: Marion Williams’s set for Anna Ziegler’s intelligent, sometimes compelling, occasionally amusing, but nonetheless unsatisfying The Wanderers is a spare, neutral space occupied by desks, chairs, and piles of books, scattered about the stage and rearranged when necessary. The high walls are covered with countless manuscript pages. It nicely accommodates the needs of the play, a self-consciously literary drama about two married couples, by allowing the action to move fluidly back and forth among scenes focused on each couple. The play premiered at San Diego’s Old Globe and played at several other regionals before its Covid-delayed appearance at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, where it opened tonight.
One couple is comprised of the prize-winning novelist Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas, Golden Age), a Philip Roth-like, Brooklyn-based, secular Jew with binding, if skeptical, ties to his religious roots, and his wife, Sophie (Sarah Cooper, of Trump lip-syncing fame). Sophie’s a talented novelist of color whose first book was panned, and who’s unsure of her writing future. The other couple is represented by Abe’s Satmar sect Hasidic parents, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Schmuli (Dave Klasko, Gordy Crashes) and Esther (Lucy Freyer, Juilliard, ‘20).
The play examines the marital relations of each couple, and their various levels of nuptial dissatisfaction. Over the course of many years, beginning in 1973, we watch the evolution of Schmuli and Esther’s relationship, beginning with their gently comic wedding night, when, because of their arranged marriage, they barely know each other. Sarah takes the initiative, to Schmuli’s surprise. Their marriage eventually breaks up when, despite their mutual affection, Esther rebels, unable to abide by the constraints of their ultra-Orthodox world. Such restrictions include not simply Schmuli’s reluctance to allow his wife a computer, but his refusal to accept her wish not to have any more kids. Differences in their book and music choices add more fuel to the flames.
The premise of a Hasidic wife needing release from ultra-Orthodoxism is similar to what happens in films like A Price above Rubies,and TV programs such as Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. As in Abe and Sophie’s situation, the power balance favors the man, the self-involved Abe because of his literary success, the inflexible Schmuli because of his firm religiosity in a rigid patriarchal system. There’s also a suggestion of racial imbalance, as the script depicts Sophie as Black, a characteristic muffled here by Ms. Cooper’s racially ambiguous looks.
As each scene is introduced by a caption—citing chapter and title, i.e., Ch. 1, or Marriage, Ch. 2, or Children, Ch. 3, or Boredom, etc.—the action slides back and forth between each couple’s lives, Schmuli and Esther’s story serving as a backdrop to the main dramatic thrust represented by the modern Abe and Sophie, friends since childhood. Their marital imbalance takes on heightened tension when Abe begins an email correspondence with a beautiful, but married-with-children, film star named Julia Cheever (Katy Holmes, Dead Accounts), following her hearing him read from his latest novel at a Brooklyn bookstore. (Philip Roth, of course, had a famously fraught marriage to the glamorous actress Claire Bloom.) The largest portion of the play’s hour-and-45-minute run time is occupied with their epistolary exchanges, which evolves from their reading their emails aloud to saying their words to one another as if they were in the same space, even including some mild, if imaginary, physical contact.
Blinded by the “luminous” actress (an adjective, I’m afraid, Ms. Holmes fails to embody). Abe falls dangerously from infatuation into love, exposing to Julia his deepest feelings, things he never even tells his wife, until playwright Ziegler introduces a twist that ignites a bomb under Abe and Sophie’s marriage. Protocol insists I not reveal it, but I can certainly declare it to be overextended, unconvincing, and ethically uncomfortable. Abe and Sophie’s confrontation is matched by an equally volatile one between Schmuli and Esther, giving the play several moments of aggressive agitation.
The Wanderers is adequately directed by Barry Edelstein, who staged the Old Globe premiere, and lit with delicacy by Kenneth Posner. However, the actors—appropriately costumed by David Israel Reynoso—are only rarely able to transcend Ziegler’s writerly rhetoric and thematic preoccupations to soar into something deeper and more profound. Abe and Sophie may be novelists but their everyday dialogue doesn’t need to sound like something they might simultaneously be writing in a book.
Even more problematic are the email-reading scenes, which are hampered by the conceit of having Abe and Julia in close proximity but expressing themselves by reading material they’ve just written. Under such conditions, it’s impossible for the dialogue and acting not to have an emotional impact more measured than immediate, serving only to heighten the literary aura and diminish the realism. It’s reminiscent of the kind of epistolary dramaturgy represented by A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, where the actors, seated beside one another, invest their letters with pools of feeling although without having to suggest imaginary byplay.
Schmuli and Esther’s scenes, as well played by Mr. Klasko and Ms. Freyer, hew closest to authentic-sounding dialogue and believable behavior. Their acting—especially the reticent Mr. Klasko’s—seems more natural. perhaps because so many similar Hasidic characters, with their distinctive, shared cultural markers, have been visible to us in recent dramatizations. Mr. Thomas and Ms. Cooper, on the other hand, come off as artificial constructs, as if writers could not be other than verbosely preoccupied with their work. Ms. Holmes, a real film star playing a film star, has a certain appeal but she offers little of the luminosity that could possibly have so totally ensnared a writer of Abe’s prominence as Julia does here. One might even say Katie Holmes is no Claire Bloom.
A Yiddish word heard a couple of times is bashert, or “meant to be.” For all their disagreements and dissatisfactions, when the dust (or, in a central image, snow) settles on these wanderers, few would dispute that the marriages of Abe and Sophie and Shmuli and Esther are bashert. Whether that means New York audiences will be able to say the same of their connection to this play, however, is yet to be determined.
The Wanderers ***
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street (between 6th and 7th Avenues)
January 26–April 2, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus