The Wanderers Review: Two Jewish Couples and a Movie Star

That Katie Holmes portrays a movie star in Anna Ziegler’s play about two troubled Jewish marriages somewhat undercuts what’s meant to be a significant moment near the end:  Sophie (Sarah Cooper) tells her husband Abe that she has finished writing a memoir called “The Wanderers.”
“I like it,” Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) says about the title. “The Jews in the desert for forty years.”

”Sort of,” Sophie answers. “Or just the idea of it. That it can take a lifetime just to grow up. To let go of a sort of galvanizing restlessness that leaves you always empty.”

The playwright is thus obviously spelling out for us the underlying meaning she wants us to take away from her play, also entitled “The Wanderers,” which is opening tonight at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater.
But “The Wanderers” is far more playful than profound, an exercise in clever storytelling that involves not one, but two big plot twists – one gradually revealed; the other, seismic – and  features that glamorous movie star character.  As in her 2017 play “The Last Match,” which was presented at the same theater, Roundabout’s Laura Pels, and which also focused on two couples in challenging relationships (rival tennis players and their spouses),  Ziegler comes up with some novel stagecraft  that doesn’t completely work, but feels largely satisfying nonetheless. And in “The Wanderers,” she collaborates with the well-cast performers and director Barry Edelstein in creating five absorbing characters.

0029 (l to r): Eddie Kaye Thomas (Abe) and Sarah Cooper (Sophie) in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

At first glance, the two couples couldn’t appear further apart, occupying completely opposite ends of the spectrum of Jewish life.  Sophie and Abe are secular intellectuals, both writers,  Abe far more successful than Sophie.   Abe tries to encourage his wife in her writing, though sometimes does so in an off-putting way (it’s unclear whether the playwright means it to be off-putting):  He tells Sophie that she is interesting because she is of  mixed race and mixed religion — ”all the inherited trauma; how many people can claim a legacy of the Holocaust and slavery?”
“But I don’t want to write about myself,” she replies. “ I write to get away from myself. Also, slavery and the Holocaust don’t define me. I grew up in Albany.” 

0007 (l to r): Lucy Freyer (Esther) and Dave Klasko (Schmuli) in Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The Wanderers. Photo by Joan Marcus.

We first see Esther and Schmuli at their wedding, which is the first time they really see each other.   Orthodox Jews from the Satmar Hasidic community of Brooklyn,  they barely met before their arranged marriage; he didn’t even look at her face; only noticed her shoes.
“You might be crazy, Schmuli Simcha. To marry without even looking,” Esther (Lucy Freyer) says on their wedding night, after he admits this.
“Not crazy. Only shy,” replies Schmuli (Dave Klasko)

We know Abe and Sophie’s marriage is in trouble right from the first monologue. Sophie tells us how she first realized that she would marry Abe – when he read one of her poems back to her, “with so much reverence for each word” – but then concludes: “I was almost forty when I realized I would leave him.”

 It takes longer for us to see the problems in Esther and Schmuli’s relationship, but it’s only slightly more subtle: It occurs in (as we both read, and hear spoken aloud) “Chapter 3, or Boredom.” Esther wants to listen to secular music, and get a computer, and a job.

“If you get a job. If we get a computer,  will it end there? “ Schmuli complains.

“I don’t know. I’m not a prophet,” she replies, taking his question as literal rather than rhetorical.

As the play unfolds, in scenes that alternate focus between the two couples, it becomes increasingly evident that they share more than their dissatisfaction– their restlessness – which drives them to make decisions they often regret.   I won’t overtly spoil the eventual reveal of what they have in common – the series of reveals, really —  but I’ll offer an overly clear clue: Think “This is Us.”

So where does the movie star come in?

Julia Cheever attended a reading that Abe gave, and then emails him a fan letter.  A correspondence ensues, which leads to an infatuation, threatening Abe’s marriage.

I mean no snark to observe that Katie Holmes portrays a movie star beautifully, somebody charming and down-to-earth, even though the scenes with Eddie Kaye Thomas’s Abe are somewhat stilted. They are all supposed to take place over the Internet, so there is a built-in artificiality to their dialogue, even when the two actors are delivering their lines to each other face to face.  

Thomas does much of the heavy lifting in the play, navigating the humor, pretentiousness, enthusiasms, despondency of a character who a most complicated relationship with his family and with his Jewishness, the details of which we only learn near the end.

You may remember Sarah Cooper as the comedian who produced a series of hilarious videos lip-synching then-President Donald Trump. It turns out she’s also a serious actress.

Lucy Freyer and especially Dave Klasko arguably have the most challenging roles, portraying characters for an audience unlikely to be sympathetic to the Hasidic worldview. Ziegler creates in Schmuli something more complex and benevolent than a religious fanatic, and Klasko makes the most of him.

Marion Williams’ set is a backdrop of books and manuscripts floor to ceiling, supplemented by little more than, a table with a few chairs, as well as a stack of books on stage.  The design might seem to favor Abe and Sophie, but on reflection, brings all four of the characters together as  People of the Book.

The Wanderers
Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater through April 2, 2023
Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets: $79-$89
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Sets by Marion Williams. Costumes by David Israel Reynoso, lighting by
Kenneth Posner, sound and original music by Jane Shaw, hair and wigs by Tommy Kurzman 
Cast: Sarah Cooper as “Sophie,” Lucy Freyer as “Esther,” Katie Holmes as “Julia Cheever,” Dave Klasko as “Schmuli,” and Eddie Kaye Thomas as “Abe.”

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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