‘The Wanderers,’ Complex, Stylized, Engrossing Theater
Alternating seemingly disparate lives two couples actually reveal a similar arc of development, from marriage to divorce in Ann Ziegler’s humorous, cleverly crafted The Wanderers, an exploration of how individuals create their own deceptions, live by them then shatter them, experiencing a fragmentation of self from which they never recover. Acutely directed by Barry Edelstein and currently enjoying its New York City premiere at Laura Pels Theatre Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, Ziegler’s play runs for 95 minutes with no intermission. Because of its popularity, it has been extended until 2nd April.
Anna Ziedler employs artifice of time and place to gradually promote the revelation of lives lived in quiet desperation and loss unrealized until trigger moments of clarity occur. Ziegler’s play is ambitious. In it she presents complex, interwoven stories of culture clashes, identities in crises, and the search for happiness when its dream is an illusion created by self-deceptions. She accomplishes this storytelling of two interrelated couples allowing the audience to merge the pieces of the puzzle by the conclusion of this wonderful and gutsy play.
Ziegler introduces us to the central character Sophie (Sarah Cooper) who makes her announcement in present time circa (2017) that she is divorcing her husband Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) whom she has known since she was a teenager. From this point on the play unfolds as a series of flashbacks of the two couples’ conversations. These occur in eight thematic scenes as pointed revelations in sequence, beginning with Abe’s parents Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko). Their conversations Ziegler carefully sculpts to contrast and abut Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions. To comprehend how the characters and their discussions are related, Ziegler keeps us focused on every word of dialogue, some of which is poetic and lovely. In other segments the dialogue is profound and richly thematic about identity, personal yearnings and self-revelation, especially in the scenes between Abe and Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes).
After Sophie introduces the profound metric of separation and divorce in her long marriage with Abe, Ziegler switches to another marriage which appears unrelated but is not. Esther and Schumuli (spoiler alert-Ziegler gradually reveals them to be Abe’s parents) are Hasidic Jews of the Satmar sect. When we meet them, their arranged marriage has just been performed. In a sweet, intimate repartee, they discuss how to begin the consummation of their union. Clearly, Schmuli is the naive one and Esther is forthright, adventurous and maverick, having read books on sex which Schmuli has not. The passive, accepting, dutiful wife Esther doesn’t appear to be in this brief interchange. It is Schmuli who is gentle, hesitant and sweetly anticipating something which he is clueless about.
With just a few defining details, the characterizations of Esther and Schmuli, incisively, sensitively portrayed by Freyer and Klasko, have been set by Ziegler. By the end of the threads of their interactions, which move for nine years through chronologically ordered vignettes that alternate in a revelatory puzzle with Sophie’s and Abe’s interactions, we discover just how rebellious Esther is. Not content with being a house frau with little of her own autonomy and authority to establish a career for herself, we learn that events push her to disavow her identify as a woman who must bow to the paternalistic culture fostered upon women of their sect. After she visits a friend in Albany (Spoiler alert-her friend is Sophie’s mom) Esther learns that she can control her own body with birth control pills. After the momentous, life-changing birth of their son Abe, who Esther names “Abe” with great authority contravening religious ritual, she tells Schmuli she wants no more children.
That Esther is forging out a life beyond the boundaries of their sect and her marriage only is strengthened when her father-in-law prevents her from seeing her daughters. He takes them to live in a household where she will not influence them against their religion. Schumli opposes her taking the pill and “slips” telling his father what Esther told him. It is a severe violation of the sect, whose intentions are to “increase and multiply.” Rather than to subject baby Abe to a life of religious bondage composed of ritual after ritual, still unable to see her daughters, Esther moves out of the neighborhood to raise her son Abe by herself. It is the equivalent of a divorce, though nothing occurs officially. Esther leaves convinced that the “grass is greener” and she will live a much more fulfilled life out from under the paternalistic oppression of a religion and sect she disagrees with.
Esther and Schumuli’s crises points are revealed in Ziegler’s beautifully crafted dialogue. However, we don’t understand the final revelations and the profound impact of Esther and Schumuli’s crises on Abe and Sophie until the conclusion. That the play gyrates back and forth between the two couples who mesmerize us to keep track of the details, is part of the enjoyment in solving the mystery which eventually crystallizes. And like the mysteries of lives explored, Ziegler throws in twists and curves and with artifice masks them over to create the surprises that happen.
Ziegler uses a conceit to manifest and uncover the hidden elements in the marriage of Sophie and Abe that dovetail with elements of Abe’s parent’s arranged marriage. In both marriages there are external and internal prison bars that keep them from achieving happiness, fulfillment and peace individually and as couples. The conceit comes in the form of celebrity Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes) the character Ziegler uses to manifest the truths that both Sophie and Abe are avoiding in their marriage, their relationship with each other and with themselves.
Abe, who is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and success in his field, attends a reading where beautiful, luminous, entertainment star Julie Cheever is present. When Holmes’ Cheever replies to his email, they strike up an intimate and heartfelt conversation and Abe becomes so engrossed with writing to her, at times Sophie notices that he neglects his own children and their relationship.
Abe’s and Julia’s email conversations are acted out live by Eddie Kaye Thomas and Katie Holmes. Both actors are excellent and spot-on authentic. The emails are enlivened so that it is as if Julia Cheever is present with Abe who is over the moon that someone of her celebrity, beauty and intelligence is complimenting him about his work and inspiring him to discuss his parents and his upbringing. Indeed, Ziegler’s construct supplements Abe’s discussions with Sophie. What is revealed melds and substantiates the revelatory conversations of Esther and Schmuli, though these happened long before Abe was born. Because only Esther raised him, Abe never had an understanding of his father, nor the religion that would have given him power as a man. Raised outside of it without a father role model, he is lost. Though Esther encouraged his love of words and his wonderful success as a writer, as did Sophie, there are gaps in his soul and his life’s vision is myopic.
As Julia’s and Abe’s online relationship strengthens, eventually Abe wishes to meet her. However, this is not to be. After his father dies, his discussions with Cheever eventually lead to a revelation that is devastating for both Abe and Sophie.
Ziegler’s thematically structured scenes featuring the couples, first appearing disparate, are eventually conjoined. However, unless you read the script, think about the play at length or see it a few times, it is easy to miss the importance of what is happening as a precursor to Schmuli’s death, and why Abe decides to re-write and fictionalize how his father died to make his death more beautiful and moving.
Zielgler’s play is fluid and slips in and out of present and past which appear to be concurrent, though they are not. The artifice evokes aspects of consciousness and spirituality that are opaque. Because of the conceit that Ziegler has chosen to use as a vehicle to uncover the mysterious elements of her characters and their lives, the scenes suggest linearity, but for the sake of mystery, they are profound and labyrinthine. Like all flashbacks the scenes occur as a result of memory. Clearly, the characters nuance the events.
Well acted, the director has finely shepherded this as an ensemble piece, though only the married couples interact with each other. Yet, we feel we know them, know their agony and brilliance which surprise us in their final revelations.
Kudos to Marion Williams for the stylized spare set whose backdrop is populated by pages of books which encompass the great expanse of reading that the characters have accomplished in their lives. A table and some chairs are used to evoke a bedroom and other spaces. And of course there are piles of actual books almost an anachronism in a digital age. Kudos to other creatives who completed the director’s vision for Ziegler’s play. These include David Israel Reynoso (costume design) Kenneth Posner (lighting design) Jane Shaw (original music & sound design) and Tommy Kurzman (hair and wig design).
The Wanderers is thought-provoking, symbolic and most strongly felt when the superb actors are authentic and in the moment, inhabiting the characters and making them alive. This play has proven itself a must-see by audience word of mouth, for it has garnered an extension. For tickets go to their website.