Anyone looking for the secret to a long, happy marriage won’t find it – at least, directly -- in Anna Ziegler’s alternately moving and tedious drama “The Wanderers,” now getting its New York premiere at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Laura Pels Theatre. Indeed, while we may not immediately realize it, the unions of both of the Brooklyn couples’ we meet are doomed from the start; and as their marriages disintegrate, their actions do little but make a bad situation worse.
While these pairs are interconnected – you may guess how long before Ziegler reveals the details – they are superficially quite different. Schmuli (a nebbishy Dave Klasko) and Esther (a fiery Lucy Freyer) are Orthodox Jews who settle into an arranged marriage in the 1970s. From the start, we sense there’s something a bit “unorthodox” about Esther – who has waited to the almost unthinkable age of 23 to wed – and her ever-evolving modern ideas ultimately bring Schmuli, who is in thrall to his (unseen) ultra-religious father, to the breaking point, with heartbreaking consequences.
Meanwhile, four decades later, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas, doing wonders with a basically unsympathetic character) is struggling with writer’s block, an early mid-life crisis, and some latent dissatisfaction over his decades-long marriage to Sophie (a somewhat flat Sarah Cooper), whom he has known since they were teens. Also a writer – far less successful than Abe – Sophie (who is, please take note, biracial and half-Jewish) is also obviously dissatisfied with her work and life, and the pair’s failure to effectively communicate proves painful to watch.
Indeed, the only person Abe seems to be able to talk to – albeit, only in writing – is a legendary movie star named Julia Cheever, who begins an online correspondence with Abe after seeing him at his book reading. As Julia has been a star since her teens and a seeming object of lust for all men, it makes perfect sense that director Barry Edelstein has cast Katie Holmes (who falls into both categories) in the role.
Indeed, Holmes lights up the stage with her soigne presence (aided by David Israel Reynoso’s elegant costumes) and earthy glamour. It’s not her fault that Julia isn’t actually that interesting as a person, although it may raise some suspicions that Julia is so interested in Abe that she continues a months-long correspondence (not to mention that she’s working on a film adaptation of a Philip Roth novel.)
The production could benefit from a more stimulating visual production. Set designer Marion Williams has fashioned a fascinating rear wall of the stage, seemingly made of thousands of books, but both apartments are otherwise basically represented by a single dining table that serves almost every purpose other than eating. And besides Holmes’ outfits, Reynoso’s costumes are uniformly drab.
Most importantly, Ziegler has structured the script so that each couple’s story is told in alternating scenes, which are labeled as chapters of a book. (Three guesses is you figure out who is writing the book, and the first two don’t count. Bonus points if you figure out the book’s title.)
It’s questionable if both stories deserve equal weight. Personally, Esther and Schmuli’s backstory seems mostly necessary to explain Abe and Sarah’s marriage, so I could have done with less of their tale (which could also shorten the 105-minute play down to 90 minutes).
But, fittingly for a play called “The Wanderers,” I imagine your mileage may vary.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Sarah Cooper as “Sophie,” Lucy Freyer as “Esther,” Katie Holmes as “Julia Cheever,” Dave Klasko as “Schmuli,” and Eddie Kaye Thomas as “Abe.”
Laura Pels Theatre
111 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036