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Theatre in Review: The Wanderers (Roundabout Theatre Company/Laura Pels Theatre)

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Katie Holmes. Photo: Joan Marcus

Two marriages unravel, spectacularly, in The Wanderers, and you're likely to care much more about one than the other. I'm betting you'll be most engaged by Esther and Schmuli, a young, heartbreakingly innocent Hasidic couple introduced to us on their wedding night. (It is the mid-1970s, but it could be anytime in the last century, so thoroughly do they live outside the modern world.) Esther is merely relieved that her wig -- the newly acquired sign of her matronly status -- didn't fall off during the celebratory dancing. "What a merciful God we have, right?" she sighs. Such concerns mean little to Schmuli, who is practically trembling at the thought of what comes next. So ill-prepared is he that his idea of a romantic overture is: "Are you ready to commence?"

It's a bumpy start and it's about to get more so. Esther has previously displayed a finicky attitude about husband material -- at 23, she has been warned, she is perilously close to her sell-by date -- and her attitude makes her irresistible to Schmuli. But, as she settles into married life, her independent streak only grows: She surreptitiously listens to pop music on the radio, floats the idea of returning to school and becoming a librarian, and even raises the possibility of taking birth control pills. (Schmuli, shocked beyond words, needs independent corroboration that such abominations exist.)If you've seen the Netflix series Unorthodox, you'll know where this is heading; soon, Esther will flee, leading to a decades-long standoff that provides them with little satisfaction. Years later, trying to be magnanimous, Schmuli, says, "I think I could forgive you." "What makes you think I could ever forgive you?" roars Esther.

If playwright Anna Ziegler artfully charts the decline of Esther and Schmuli's union, her portrait of the equally embattled Abe and Sophie, a contemporary pair in their early forties, is rather smudgier. A novelist with a carefully curated scruffy appearance -- his shirttail is always out but note how well his Argyle socks match his sweater -- Abe is another Michael Chabon or Jonathan Safran Foer, enshrined in the contemporary pantheon at a startlingly early age. Sophie is down at the mouth, forever in a muddle about herself, given to wry comments with a sour undertone. She has her reasons: Her first novel -- "You did for 19th-century Russian oligarchs what Faulkner did for the American South," Abe reassures her -- went straight to the remainder table, following a volley of dismissive reviews.

Indeed, their success gap is a permanent irritation. Abe, whose hobby is self-pity, says, "Nothing is simple for me." "You're right," snaps Sophie. "Getting a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards before turning 30 is pretty rough." Trying to encourage the writing efforts of Sophie, who is part-Black and part-Jewish, Abe says, with unseemly envy, "You are so interesting. I mean -- all the inherited trauma; how many people can claim a legacy of the Holocaust and slavery?" Such comments don't inspire her to mine historical connections she doesn't really feel.

In Ziegler's dramatic design, the couples are mirror images of each other: Esther, who becomes intoxicated with books, must escape from Schmuli's conventional marital expectations; Sophie, paralyzed by failure and resentful of Abe's success, is thinking of chucking it all and having another baby. (She already carries the burden of housekeeping and childcare, despite Abe's guilty protests, so why not embrace her lot in life?) Then, however, the playwright entangles Abe in an email correspondence with film star Julia Cheever -- of course, she has a literary surname -- which blossoms into an affair of the mind, with Abe sharing shockingly intimate revelations about his marriage.

This is the point where The Wanderers, for all its cultural literacy -- name-dropping Philip Roth, Anna Karenina and William Butler Yeats, along with Jay-Z, Art Garfunkel, and Beverly Hills 90210 -- pitches its tent in soap opera territory. Abe's fanboy attachment to Julia is embarrassingly unconvincing, especially in his rush to bare his soul. "I feel like I'm corresponding with Helen of Troy," he writes, a comment that, surprisingly, doesn't cause Julia to immediately change her email address. To be sure, Julia, who has a husband and child, tries to deflect some of Abe's most ardent sentiments. Then, however, Ziegler throws a curveball of a plot twist that might work if The Wanderers were a just-for-fun psychological thriller; instead, it makes Abe and Sophie look pathological: If he has been brutally disloyal, she is revealed as staggeringly manipulative.

Ziegler has an ear for Michiko Kakutani's brisk dismissals ("If Sophie Hausman applied her attention to detail and crisp characterizations to a topic more widely enticing, she might be onto something"). But her supposed literary and show business sophisticates often seem clueless, even banal. Making a list of her favorite things, Julia says, "How about when a Cate Blanchett movie bombs?" "Has that ever happened?" wonders Abe, who clearly doesn't read Variety. (Really, we don't have time even for the short list.) Some remarks are right out of a lesser Neil Simon comedy. Sophie: "I will never understand why you want to raise our kids in a religion you hate." Abe: "Because that's what Jews do!" Abe, fending off Sophie's suggestion that he see a psychoanalyst, replies, "I already lead the most examined life of anyone I know." But when he spills his the secrets to Julia, they are so textbook Freud that it's hard to believe he hasn't been on the couch for years.

There is, of course, a link between the play's two plot lines, which is revealed in the fullness of time. Among other things, Ziegler is interested in how the misery of one generation is visited upon the next. Just about everyone in The Wanderers is hankering for a fulfillment that remains tantalizingly out of reach. But in trying to give her two-part drama the shapeliness of good fiction, the playwright indulges in contrivances that are fatally undermining. The origin story of Abe and Sophie's marriage is, at best, hard to buy; when you find out what is really going on with them and Julia, they hardly seem worth your time and attention.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, director Barry Edelstein has an easier time with the Esther -- Schmuli scenes, which feature the appealing newcomers Lucy Freyer and Dave Klasko. As Abe and Sophie, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Sarah Cooper have an uphill climb that only becomes steeper as the play unfolds. Julia is little more than a plot device, but Katie Holmes, who knows a thing or two about film stardom, has a wry appreciation about the strange ways of artists, crinkling her eyes in friendly skepticism over Abe's intimacies and musing, "I think maybe knowing you has made me sadder than I was before."

Marion Williams' interestingly stylized unit set surrounds the action with curved walls covered with layers of manuscript paper, an allusion to the vast trove of words, secular and sacred, that haunts the characters. Kenneth Posner treats the set with strong up- and backlighting effects that lend a much-needed sense of visual variety. David Israel Reynoso's costumes are incisively observant -- note how Esther, having escaped her marriage, can't quite get away from layers of ill-matched separates -- and Jane Shaw's apt sound design includes Jewish wedding music and Neil Diamond singing "I Am...I Said."

That this is a slick, literate, professional production is not in doubt and Ziegler has some interesting points to make about the consolations of art and its limitations; Abe, for example, turns his personal agony into great prose, but the effort hardly makes him happier. Still, too much of the time, the people in The Wanderers are too subject to their creator's whims to be entirely believable. And, anyway, I'd much rather hear about the very real struggles of Esther and Schmuli than the self-involved flailings of Abe and Sophie. ---David Barbour

(16 February 2023)

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