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The Wanderers

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 16, 2023

Katie Holmes, Lucy Freyer, Eddie Kaye Thomas,
Sarah Cooper, and Dave Klasko

Photo by Joan Marcus
Who are these people? Why are they sharing a stage? Where are the character details that would help us understand them better? The Wanderers, Anna Ziegler's new drama at the Laura Pels, shares much with its Tom Stoppard cousin a couple of blocks away, Leopoldstadt: a multi-generational Jewish tale; an exploration of the drawbacks of both slavish religious observance and aggressive assimilation; a too-long single-act running time (it's a little under two hours). But where Stoppard is unveiling a rich emotional canvas, Ziegler keeps it small, sticking to two families in Brooklyn from the early 1970s to the recent past. And yet she leaves us with so darn many questions.

The confusion begins with Marion Williams' formidable but ambiguous set, a floor-to-ceiling backdrop of what look like yellowed manuscripts, framing a long table and stacks of books on the floor. OK, a literary theme, we get that. Here, bathed in Kenneth Posner's expressive lighting, we meet Sophie (Sarah Cooper), describing her courtship by and eventual marriage to Abe (Eddie Kaye-Thomas). He's a successful Jewish novelist, one who worships Philip Roth and probably writes a lot like him. There's a lot more to both of them, but we won't find that out for a while, because we're abruptly introduced to...

Schmuli (Dave Klasko) and Esther (Lucy Freyer), Hasidim in 1970s Williamsburg, making nervous small talk on their wedding night: His opening volley is, "So how did you enjoy our wedding?" Schmuli is gentle and mild and seemingly attentive to his bride, but so devoted to his faith that he can't see her as a complete human being with choices and rights of her own, things that this severe branch of Hasidism prohibits. Esther has to secretly read novels and listen to FM radio and is afforded no role beyond wife and mother, an imprisonment of which she will grow increasingly resentful, leading to self-destructive decisions later in life. There are other aspects to this pair, too, but we won't discover them for some time, because we're back to...

Abe and Sophie. At the mic at a bookstore reading, he sees movie star Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes) in the front row. Abe is obsessive and neurotic, paying insufficient attention to Sophie, whose parental duties are suffocating her own literary ambitions. But he's also a crafty verbal charmer and he knows it, so both he and Sophie know he's going to flirt wildly with Julia. Soon novelist and celebrity are ensconced in a voluminous correspondence, portrayed onstage as plain old dialogue. Are these texts? Tweets? Very short rapid-fire emails? Couldn't director Barry Edelstein have found a clearer way to convey that?

And why these two particular couples? Are they linked? They are, but we don't find out how until about halfway through. Meanwhile, while Julia drifts blithely through the action, more of a device than a character, the marriages of both couples careen all over the place. Sophie and Abe are variously mutually supportive, affectionate, distant, and blisteringly combative, culminating in Abe having a breakdown, which Kaye-Thomas, to these eyes, rather overplays (and then the next scene illogically has the two making casual chitchat, even as their union is collapsing). Schmuli, taking his own love of music and nature for granted while relegating Esther to her narrow preordained existence, gradually loses our sympathy, though I don't think this is Ziegler's intent. So much is left out: What are the personalities of both couples' children? What does Schmuli do for a living? Why is Abe onstage while Schmuli and Esther are playing a scene, and why do Abe and Julia conduct an e-correspondence with his head on her knee? Why is this called The Wanderers? (An explanation does arrive for that, at the last minute.)

Ziegler writes well-turned dialogue, and even affords a couple of good laughs. (Sophie: "I will never understand why you want to raise our kids in a religion you hate." Abe: "Because that's what Jews do!") The principals' inner lives, though, remain more obscured than they have any right to be, especially given the ample time they spend directly addressing us. All four experience moments of great unhappiness, the most convincing of which may be Esther's, thanks to Freyer's precisely calibrated reading of it. Cooper catches Sophie's many moods, but we're never sure exactly how we should feel about her. Ditto with Klasko's Schmuli, whose docility and uncertainty so clash with his Hasidic absolutism, he feels like two different people.

Dividing the proceedings into chapter headings (Marriage, Children, Boredom, etc.) doesn't help explain Abe's and Sophie's and Schmuli's and Esther's motivations. And Ziegler withholds a bombshell about Julia until near the end, one that helps make sense of everything that preceded it, but also introduces some logical holes that don't entirely get sewn up. The Wanderers has some trenchant observations about the price of independence in a restrictive environment, the gnarly twists and turns in a modern marriage, and the consequences of a vivid fantasy life concocted by an active imagination, but I might have enjoyed it more if I didn't spend so much time going, "Huh?" And if Ziegler has a resonant statement to make about Judaism and assimilation, I didn't catch it. For that, go to Leopoldstadt.

The Wanderers
Through April 2, 2023
Roundabout Theatre Company
Laura Pels Theatre, Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York NY
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