The Off-Broadway Theatre Review: Roundabout Theatre’s The Wanderers
The loopholes in life are piled up and plastered across the back walls of the Roundabout Theatre Company‘s production of The Wanderers, the new play that just opened at the Laura Pels Theatre off-Broadway. The pages and books that decorate the stage tell two stories that work their way around one another, flipping back and forth until they finally find the connective tissue that loosely binds. It’s a compelling construct that tries its best to hold Anna Ziegler’s ambitious story together but somehow muddles itself in its own high-mindedness and poor formulation. Lines and ideas are put forth by Ziegler (The Last Match), through the distinctive, yet somewhat stereotypical characters, registering interesting pathways regarding culture, religion, and unhappiness, that could be at the core, but are often left in the dust. Sidelined, and discarded, for more showier movie star explorations.
The layers are complex and dynamic but as directed by Barry Edelstein (RTC’s All My Sons), the design fails to capture the intent, leaving the play to push through entrances and exits that slow down the wonder it is so desperately trying to script, chapter to chapter. The frustrated modern wife, Sophie, played by Sarah Cooper (“Summering“) delivers the first page, standing in the symbolic arena, designed haphazardly by Marion Williams (PlayMakers’ Into the Woods). Her character sets up a conflict with highlighted determination, that ultimately takes the backseat, and in the end, has little to do with the main outcome, other than pointing out the obvious. Those poetic openings do their job, I guess, pulling us into the pages of the conflict, I just wish the play understood what it really needed to say about these two couples, separated by time and culture, and why a movie star presence is even needed.
The Wanderers is an overly literal play that doesn’t quite know its way around the tabled subject, planting the formulation in an abstract that isn’t quite dramatic enough for the flattened structure. The play wants us to be drawn into the conflicts of these two very different heterosexual couples standing at the brink of conflict and change, and the impulse is there. One of them is a young newlywed Orthodox Jewish couple, Esther and Schmuli, finding their way toward one another even as we watch them grow apart, and the other, Abe and Sophie, is a modern, somewhat non-religious married couple with kids, both highly educated, intellectual, and writers of books, finding their literal world more complex then either seem prepared for. The projected chapter titles, designed by Joey Moro (Broadway’s Skeleton Crew), do little to draw us in, even though they make us believe there will be a point, and the lighting, designed by Kenneth Posner (Broadway’s Beetlejuice) needed a bit more pooling subtlety rather than making all these characters forever walk in to deliver their lines before casually strolling off, well lit and obvious, to alter their pretty costuming by David Israel Reynoso (Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More) for no apparent reason other than the play’s requirements.
The interlocking connection, beyond the fact that both marriages are clearly walking towards trouble almost from the get-go, doesn’t present itself until about halfway through, even though the clues are pretty obviously teased out. But the reasoning for this overlap never seems powerful or deep enough to warrant their existence together. The stories, in their own particular orbit, do offer intrigue, especially in the alteration (and some could say enlightenment) of Esther, played delicately by Lucy Freyer (“Paint“), who desires connection to the modern world, to the concerned amazement of her more traditional new husband, played exquisitely by Dave Klasko (SITP’s King Lear). Their work together is deliciously enticing, especially Klasko in a role that most modern non-Orthodox Jewish audience members would not want to align with, yet he finds humanity and tenderness in his confused collision with his own belief systems. Their story has a soul, and although it’s one we have seen before, particularly well told in the Netflix series “Unorthodox“, the dual emotional complexities register in a way that the rest of the play fails to.
The modern story, even with its twists and turns, stays solidly in territory that feels less tenderly determined. The husband, who is the more accomplished writer, played with determination by Eddie Kaye Thomas (MCC’s The Submission), unpacks ideas poetically, as he becomes entranced by an email and instant messaging exchange with a beautiful movie star, Julia Cheever, played solidly by Katie Holmes (Broadway’s All My Sons). It’s a compelling narrative, although poorly orchestrated on that wide bright stage. Holmes’ movie star character floats in and out, engaging in chatter that is overblown and unreasonable. In a strange way, her sad regular person living an irregular life feels like titillation rather than an inherent need. Yet it gives the playwright opportunities to throw out complexities about fame and creativity that are fascinating, yet somehow unrelatable. And Cooper’s annoyed wife role, unfortunately, standing on the sidelines folding laundry, only finds her space later on, but still manages to never find its weight that the initial poetic monologue hinted at in the very beginning.
“Wake up, Abe,” she says, placing ideas in between the lines that haven’t presented themselves quite yet. Ziegler’s writing feels smart, poetic, and recklessly brave, while not really discovering the ropes that bind these two stories together tightly. The play seems to be asking the overly simplified question, “Can we be happy with what we have while we have it?” but fails, in a way, to answer it completely or deeply, beyond the simplistic, disconnected tones of two stories that don’t have a lot to say to one another. And why the movie star? The correspondence has some fleshy bits, but never finds deeper meaning to its internal unhappiness or desire. The two connect, yet it doesn’t feel real, and it certainly isn’t honest in more ways than one. Maybe that is the point, yet I never cared about the two, and the twist (or is it a manipulation?) that comes later, made it feel reasonable that I didn’t. Which I don’t think served the overall cloudy theme. The stories themselves made me curious, but the charm of the play, Abe’s words, and his egotism faded quickly, and as the novel approach came sputtering to an end, The Wanderers remained, looking for the core, but not exactly finding its way.