There are a lot of themes afoot in The Wanderers, Anna Ziegler play that just opened tonight at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater, but it won’t take long to unpack them, so clearly are they all stacked in this clunky piece of luggage.
Ziegler has set up two couples whose escalating relationship problems parallel each other, and might even intersect. Sophie (Sarah Cooper) is an author married to a fellow, but more successful one. We know the marriage is doomed because she, the first character we meet, addresses the audience directly to alert us that her union would be over by the time she was 40.
The playwright has created a structure where her play unfolds as a series of chapters, with projection designer Joey Moro displaying “CHAPTER ONE (or, Marriage),” and so on, against Marion Williams’s magnificent set of shapeshifting books between scene breaks to guide us along. At first, this schematic seems to be from one of Sophie’s books, but Wanderers turns out to be not her story at all. It’s actually about Sophie’s husband, Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas), both breadwinner and prizewinner, with one Pulitzer and two National Book Awards stored somewhere in their supposedly lavish Brooklyn brownstone. Abe continually cites Philip Roth, and he doesn’t just emulate his literary acumen. He also seems to share his arrogant solipsism and sense of entitlement.
Since the audience has been told from the jump that Abe and Sophie – themselves supposedly best friends since childhood, and raised by their own mothers to wed one another – won’t last, she leans into the elements of their marriage that seem off, thus creating an imbalance that raises fundamental questions about their history together. Why does Sophie constantly approach Abe like she is a stranger in their own house? Why does basic information, including interior and unspoken emotion, seem to be so hard for Sophie to divine? (Cooper, who went viral during the pandemic with virtual Trump lip-synchs, does what she can here, but Sophie is such a cipher it is difficult to find a way into the role.)
Abe is no great shakes either, of course: he blithely tells the biracial Sophie (unlike her Jewish mother, her father is Black, and an environmental science professor) that she should exploit her dual ancestry’s history of abuses to her favor when it comes to writing. Yuck. When it comes to Abe’s own upbringing, however, holes remain. While estranged from his family, he does see his parents and sisters at some point in his life; it’s just unclear how much, and that information matters. So does an explanation as to how someone raised in poverty came to embrace such a life and career of privilege at a very young age.
The other couple Ziegler presents offers more to gnaw on in the form of Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko), newlywed members of the Satmar Hasidic community in the Williamsburg, Brooklyn of 1973 and strangers to each other. who barely know each other. Or at least there is potentially more to dig into; Ziegler traffics through their series of scenes to communicate nothing but tropes about their Orthodox lifestyle. Schmuli inevitably makes craven decisions to horrify, alienate and traumatize Esther. But throughout Wanderers, Ziegler offers no commentary about the rigidity and misogyny of Orthodoxy, why some people cleave and others choose to leave. It verges on the exploitative.
A fifth character, though it’s largely a cardboard one, also enters the frame: At a reading in a Brooklyn bookstore, Abe espies a famous actress named Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes, still unsure how to bring dialogue from the page to life on the stage), in attendance. The two begin a surprising and questionable email correspondence that takes the form of an emotional affair, and also enables to Abe to provide all the exposition Ziegler needs to dole out to the audience. (Side note: her last name is Cheever?! Sigh.)
The relationship between Abe and Julia causes director Barry Edelstein, artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where the show premiered, to make some clumsy choices with the physical staging. If the two of them are writing each other at different times, why are they constantly blocked to look as though they are constantly meeting face to face? At one point, Abe even has his head on Julia’s knee. Alternately, Holmes wanders around, wantonly narrating her emails out to the audience in a way that suggests Abe is not her target audience. And other times, the two interrupt each other or cut conversations short the way one would over FaceTime or even a text – especially when Sophie has to enter the room.
Ziegler’s puzzling play structure has set up other obstacles with the show’s physical staging that seem to cause fiat on Edelstein’s part. In shuttling between her two couples, the audience must witness a parade of graceless entrance and exits (sometimes with the actors struggling to hurtle props with them) that distract from where their focus is supposed to be. Why would Abe be onstage while Schmuli and Esther are playing a scene?
There is another element of The Wanderers that is downright icky. I didn’t see any mention of it in the program, but Abe’s predicament smacks of the real-life situation between acclaimed Brooklyn novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and Natalie Portman, an email flirtation that at least partially seems to have led to Foer’s divorce from fellow novelist Nicole Krauss. (Any doubt that this was intentional was dispelled upon learning that the name of Foer’s own mother is…Esther.) Is this cultural skin graft merely purloined, or is it purposeful? It doesn’t seem to bear fruit. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if Thomas has been directed to emulate Foer or just the generic writer-as-egotist, but he does fit the bill.
Of the cast, Freyer and Klasko have the most interesting material to work with, and they breathe real humanity in their under-realized scenes. (They are also convincingly outfitted in wigs by Tommy Kurzman and costumes by David Israel Reynoso.) It’s clear that Schmuli is confronting something, but the play never tells us what, leaving it to the actor to express the pain, even if the audience never knows the source. And since fathers figure heavily into this show, and since Schmuli constantly mentions relying on his own father’s counsel, he should really be a character in the show. (We should also see, or even hear offstage from any of the characters’ children.) Klasko has a particularly affecting scene in which he takes in snowfall (bathed in Kenneth Posner’s wonderful lighting design) that, like so many other strokes in the show, contribute nothing in the aggregate. In the end, I still don’t even know what Schmuli did for a living.
The Wanderers tugs at one thread that never gets the attention it deserves. Is there such a thing as bashert? Can a union truly be fated – and is it possible for that, too to dissolve based on the choices we make? The show is too vague and its playwright, too disinterested in digging beneath her structural setup, to truly examine the characters she has tossed together and offer up an answer.
Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre