A divorced friend on a collision course with #2 confessed: “I don’t choose well. Maybe someone should pick ex- #3 for me, like an arranged marriage.” Anna Ziegler’s The Wanderers, in a world premiere at the Old Globe, explores that possibility in two seemingly unrelated stories.
Esther and Schmuli could not be more innocent. They belong to the Satmar of Hasidic Judiasm, at Monsey, New York. The ultra-orthodox sect values purity and absolute observance of the law. Its members insulate themselves from society: no TV, movies, or radio, no Winnie the Pooh, and a university education is dangerous for women. Their strict dress codes put men in 18th-century black formal wear, and cover the women’s heads, legs, and arms. Nothing must detract from the joy of being with their Maker.
Esther and Schmuli resemble Adam and Eve before the fall. In the play’s best scene, we see them on their wedding night. They sit stone still on a long table, wondering how to go about what they’re supposed to go about. Bright-eyed, curious Esther has some notions. Shy Schmuli is clueless. They half-speak about where, how, and when to begin. Foreplay’s as foreign as a trip to Bloomingdales. Somehow, in a remarkably funny and charming manner, they commence.
While Esther and Schmuli are brand new, Abe and Sophie have been married many years. Both are writers: Abe, who has lapsed from Judaism, had a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards before he was 30; Sophie, half-Jewish, half-African-American, labored over a novel 10 years ago. It received negative reviews; she’s wandered in artistic limbo ever since. While Abe fears his new book won’t match expectations, Sophie waits on him and their children like an enabling underling.
The Wanderers unfolds like a book. It even has “Chapters.” The titles trace two fallings away: “Marriage,” “Children,” “Boredom,” “Destruction.” Both couples lived according to pre-arranged notions of marriage and happiness: one religious, one secular. Time — the play spans several years — erodes these standards.
As inquisitive as Anne Frank, Esther finds living with a “weak” husband is not enough. She listens to contemporary music on a radio, a sin (though “FM is worse”). She wants a computer and only three children, though the community encourages many more. She begins to wonder what’s beyond the wall.
Abe, the self-centered writer, also smells greener grass. At a book signing, he meets Julia Cheever, major Hollywood star. Though both are married with children, something seems to spark. Their emails become more and more intimate, especially his. He can’t believe an international actress would even look his way. Soon he calls her his “Helen of Troy.”
Then Julia draws a line. Instead of searching for vague fulfillment, why not “re-see” the familiar? Make it fresh in new ways, and take stock of current blessings.
From this point on, the play tightropes on Julia’s boundary line.
The title could refer to the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness, or to someone on the move without a fixed destination. The glitter of the unknown outshines ingrained routines. The Wanderers pounds this theme hard with the equivalent of subtitles. “Would you want to undo anything?” a character asks. Is there “some more fulfilling life out there?” “I didn’t want to be (any) of the things I actually am.” “How do you get through the day?” These helpful hints become so prominent the play verges on a debate: stability versus novelty, with the characters taking definite sides.
After a predictable set-up, The Wanderers has the surprise twists critics should keep mum about. The play moves with well-crafted dialogue — until the twists, which feel tacked on, not earned emotionally. The last quarter of the play could use a rewrite.
One problem: Abe dominates. He has so many arias of angst he becomes tedious. The script — and Daniel Eric Gold’s honest, albeit un-layered, performance — make it clear he’s a depressed narcissist early on (he claims to have the “world’s most examined life”). But the script pushes the point so far that Abe becomes a one-note figure. In a long speech toward the end, he bemoans his fate, crams in bunches of exposition, makes key revelations, and...do go on.
Like Abe, Schmuli is barely dimensional. Both are “weak” husbands (men do not fare well in The Wanderers). But while Abe is overly expressive, Dave Klasko makes Schmuli so timid, one may miss the freshness of his observations. To his poet’s eye, everything’s brand new. As Julia Cheever (related to John?), Janie Brookshire projects a regal presence and does what she can with little. At one point, she appears to touch Abe (at least from my vantage point). Didn’t know emails had reached the tactile state.
Ali Rose Dachis (Esther) and Michelle Beck (Sophie) enjoy the best written parts by far. Dachis has a subversive spunk that makes Esther quite appealing, as does her monologue about breaking away. While much of the acting remains on the surface, Beck puts us inside Sophie. She’s ripped apart by fidelity to family versus Abe requiring 100 percent attention every second of the day. And her instinctive generosity is wearing thin.