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Off-Broadway Play Review—Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” with Katie Holmes

The Wanderers
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Barry Edelstein
Performances through April 2, 2023
Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, New York, NY
Katie Holmes in The Wanderers (photo: Joan Marcus) 

Anna Ziegler’s play, The Wanderers, is a schematic but intelligently written exploration of two generations of a Jewish family—one very religious, the other decidedly not—with a lightness of touch that doesn’t detract from the thoughtful and piercingly humane drama at its center.
In 2017, Abe, a successful writer, lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his wife Sophie and their (smartly unseen) children. Abe and Sophie have known each other since they were kids, and their marriage has hit a rough patch, exacerbated by Sophie not be able to write as she used to as Abe’s books continue to be successful. To that end, Julia Cheever, a famous actress whom Abe has been infatuated with for years, attends a reading of his and begins an unlikely email correspondence with him, also threatening to unbalance the precarious state of Abe and Sophie’s relationship.
In 1973, also in Williamsburg, Abe’s parents, Schmuli and Esther, get married and start a family. Although both come from Hasidic families, Schmuli is perturbed by Esther’s ever greater attempts to break free of that stifling environment. After Abe is born, Esther’s behavior—which includes listening to FM radio and checking books out of the library—becomes too much for Schmuli’s ultra-conservative father, so she is banned from seeing her daughters, who have been taken from her. She scoops up the baby and leaves.
Ziegler alternates, in a fleet 105 minutes, between the two couples and their marital and personal difficulties; Abe’s ongoing electronic flirtation with Julia makes a tentative menage a trois of the trio of storylines. Writer Philip Roth is not only mentioned in the dialogue—Sophie references his novel Sabbath’s Theater in her opening monologue and Julia stars in a movie adaptation of another Roth novel, Everyman, which unsurprisingly is a bomb with audiences and critics (but not with Abe, who loves everything she’s in)—but his spirit hovers over this play about assimilation and identity, about Abe’s suppressed guilt about broken families, both his parents and now, possibly, his own. And the play is broken up by eight rather Rothian chapter titles (e.g., “Chapter Five (or, Fathers and Sons).”
But Ziegler is too smart a writer to make The Wanderers a mere Roth homage. The women Esther, Sophie and Julia are dignified and vivid presences. Even Sophie’s unseen mother Rivka—who, like Esther, broke away from the orthodox community after meeting a Black man at the Met Museum and settling down with him in Albany, where Sophie grew up—is complexly realized.
Although the relationships and interactions are occasionally contrived in Barry Edelstein’s otherwise zesty staging—which benefits by Marion Williams’ messily book-laden set and Kenneth Posner’s apt lighting—the entire cast finds the truth in Ziegler’s snappy, expressive dialogue. As Sophie, Sarah Cooper (best-known for her hilarious Trump “karaoke” viral clips) has an intelligent gleam in her eye and a confident way about her that makes one look forward to more stage appearances. 
Although Julia may be merely an extension of Katie Holmes herself, Holmes plays the actress with far more charm than she showed in her previous New York stage outings. Lucy Freyer makes Esther quite formidable in the play’s most sympathetic and touching portrayal. And both men—Eddie Kaye Thomas as Abe and Dave Klasko as Schmuli—make equally indelible impressions working their way through their characters’ patriarchal beliefs that are the root cause of the imploding relationships we see onstage.

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