By Sharon Eberson
The Wanderers takes a hard look at the eternal conundrum of being a part of something bigger than oneself – a couple, a culture, a community – while holding on to one’s individuality.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers, just questions that take a lifetime to explore.
In the Anna Ziegler play now at City Theatre, The Wanderers shines a compelling, sometimes funny, and often heart-wrenching spotlight on two couples struggling to outpace opposing forces, both internal and external.
Set against the backdrop of an unyielding religious community, The Wanderers also offers insights into the burden of legacy and the added pressure when one partner has power or fame, and the other fights against that particular tide of oppression.
The play is in no small part about how we are shaped by religious influences – in this case, from ultra-Orthodox Judaism to, as one character puts it, being “Jewish–ish” – and what can happen when an individual poses a threat to the status quo.
The Wanderers also has one foot firmly in the Digital Age, moving back and forth in time while juxtaposing two worlds: one of strictly observed traditions and the other where anything goes.
In this tale of two intergenerational marriages, we are introduced to outgoing Esther (Moira Quigley) and shy Schmuli (Nick Lehane), who quickly emerge as relative strangers on their awkward yet promising wedding night. In short order, there are hints that Esther has ideas beyond what is demanded of Orthodox Jewish wives, which seems to both excite and frighten her husband.
As we get to know her, Esther shockingly expresses her love of books and listens to music on scandalous FM radio stations, while Schmuli revels in classical music.
When an outside influence sparks Esther to question a facet of strict religious code, both she and her husband are faced with unbearable consequences.
In Abe (Jed Resnick) and Sophie (Allison Strickland), we find a very modern, well-off married couple, parents of two, who have known each other since childhood. Although their marriage was not arranged, it was anticipated by parents who welcomed the match.
Abe is an award-winning author, and Sophie is a failed novelist. They have a love of language in common, express themselves in worldly banter, but each gives off couple vibes of inequity, similar to Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years.
Projected on the vertical panels of designer Anne Mundell’s spare set are chapter-like prompts – for example: 1). Marriage, and 2). Boredom – that may mirror how Abe, in particular, views his life in literary terms.
Into Abe’s perceived work-a-day life – it must be tough, the time with his family between book tours – comes an unexpected spark: The glamorous movie star Julia Cheever (Sarah Goeke) has followed up an appearance at one of his readings with an email of admiration.
Abe, already smitten with this blonde bombshell, is initially convinced he has been pranked. But he answers anyway, and suddenly his boredom morphs into an online flirtation that threatens to become an obsession.
While Sophie struggles with motherhood and reconnecting to her writer’s muse, Abe waits breathlessly for Julia’s answers to his emails and is in despair when they don’t come quickly.
Tension mounts among both couples over time. Quigley shines as Esther’s need for independence begins to manifest itself, forming a troubling counterpoint to Lehane’s frustration as her husband. How they reach a boiling point is one of several twists that I won’t spoil here.
Shifting to the next generation, Strickland’s Sophie is simmering with another sort of resentment. She has been feeling her sense of otherness deeply, unable to decide if writing is her calling and compounded by being Black and Jewish-sh, as she says. When Abe’s own feelings of guilt and longing seem to suck up all the air in the room, Sophie finally lets out her frustration, telling of an incident where she is assumed to be a nanny to her children because of the color of her skin.
Her husband tries to comfort her, but his mind is elsewhere.
Resnick’s Abe is so self-absorbed, or rather, absorbed in his feelings for Julia, he begins to distance himself from what is right in front of him. When Julia writes of her own marital struggles and mentions an attempt to start fresh by “re-seeing” each other, Abe is blind to the implications for his own marriage.
Resnick carries much of the dialogue load throughout, using his emails to Julia to confess all that he has not said to his wife, or even admitted to himself until now.
While Julia is kind and encouraging, Abe’s longings emotions are laid bare. It follows that among the authors name-dropped here, Philip Roth merits the most mentions. The real-life novelist and the character of Abe share much in common, including Pulitzer Prize-winning literary careers. The New York Times headline, upon Roth’s death, dubbed him a “Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America,” which would seem to fit Abe’s trajectory.
Along the twisty path of The Wanderers, I admit to some confusion in the timeline of Esther and Schmuli, but there is no denying the deeply felt compassion as they struggle between being true to who they are and desire to find common ground.
City Theatre previously staged Ziegler’s The Last Match, also the tale of two couples and with the added challenge of taking place in the heat of a championship tennis match. The playwright has presented another design challenge here, in a story that hinges on leaps in time and communicating through emails.
City’s Mainstage holds only a wooden table with two chairs for the couples to come close or keep their distance, as well as an unadorned upper level. Vertical panels with stylized snowflakes – you might see Stars of David in their edges, or digital code in their configuration – allow for additional points of entry and exit. Props consist of Julia’s smartphone and Abe’s laptop, symbols of the distance between them, even when they stand side by side. In the spare setting, hairstyles, wigs and costumes take on character-defining qualities.
Directed by Colette Robert, the production of The Wanderers at City is among a handful ahead of the play’s New York debut, when it opens next month at off-Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company. Commissioned by San Diego’s Old Globe, the play that debuted there in 2018 could be grounded in any religion whose practitioners run the gamut from strict adherence to occasional observance. That it is Judaism, in these troubling times of out-loud anti-Semitism, can’t help but influence how audiences will experience this play.
As someone who is Jewish and who grew up in Brooklyn, where the play takes place, parts felt somewhat familiar and certainly landed in ways that will be different for others. For example, the relationship that resonated most, for me, was not between individuals. It was each person’s responsibility to themselves vs. to the community into which they are born and raised.
As the couples of The Wanderers navigate inner turmoil and strident outside influences, it is clear that we have been made privy to a thought-provoking, insightful piece of an enigmatic, universal puzzle.
City Theatre has collaborated with Bend the Arc and the Jewish studies program at the University of Pittsburgh through the City Connects program for this production. City will highlight the work Bend the Arc does through the CitySpeaks Podcast.
The Wanderers is at City Theatre’s Mainstage, South Side, through December 18, 95 minutes without intermission. Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 1 and/or 7 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 1 and/or 5:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 or 7 p.m. Tickets and details: citytheatrecompany.org or call 412-431-2489 (CITY).