It seems that Joshua Harmon has not completely cornered the market on Bad Jews. Anna Ziegler’s literary-minded new play, The Wanderers, depicts two Brooklyn couples with a deeply fraught relationship to the Jewish tradition, and to each other. (The show opened Thursday at Roundabout’s Off Broadway Laura Pels Theatre space.)
Abe and Sophie (Eddie Kaye Thomas and Sarah Cooper) are a long-married couple with two kids (whom we never see or even hear much about) who seem to have settled into traditional gender roles exacerbated by Abe’s over-the-top success as a novelist (a Pulitzer before he turned 30); meanwhile, Sophie has buried her own literary ambitions after her first novel flopped with critics and book buyers alike. Their mutual restlessness unfolds as we also meet Abe’s parents, Schmuli and Esther (Lucy Freyer and Dave Klasko), Hasidic Jews who meet at their wedding in the 1970s but whose partnership quickly frays due to Schmuli’s blind obedience to his rabbi father.
We get short snatches from both narratives, falling-out-of-love stories that Ziegler injects with some telling details and sharp dialogue. We also get scenes with the sudden interloper in Abe and Sophie’s relationship — a megawatt Hollywood star named Julia Cheever (an aptly literary choice) who improbably strikes up an email correspondence with Abe after attending one of his public readings. Katie Holmes plays Julia as the ultimate shiksa goddess, wearing a series of stylishly “casual” outfits (costumes by David Israel Reynoso) and enunciating every syllable with the crisp diction of an Audible book on tape. She’s not the sort who wears sweats, even in her trailer, or who would be caught by paparazzi for a “Stars Are Just Like Us” photo spread.
Holmes lends some Hollywood glam to the proceedings, but it’s difficult to swallow the evolution of this budding romance, which would seem quaint and implausible even in the ’70s era of pen pals. And as the stories from the two eras progress, with some narrative surprises and at least one big twist (that many will doubtless see coming), it becomes clear that Ziegler is more concerned about the mechanics of her plot than the depth of her characters.
Learning about Schmuli and Esther’s courtship and breakup, and the dramatic fallout from each party’s choices, offers little in the way of insight into Abe, and the ways in which this insufferably solipsistic overachiever fractures his own marriage to a woman he’s known since he was a boy. And that woman is a fascinating character who feels underwritten despite a smart, sometimes sassy portrayal by former TikTok phenom Sarah Cooper. She’s biracial, the daughter of one of Esther’s good friends and a Black professor of environmental science. But we never meet Rivka and Harold to get a sense of how their relationship shaped Sophie, her response to the inequities in her marriage to Abe, and some of the fateful decisions she makes. (In some ways, she behaves more like Esther’s child than Abe does.)
Director Barry Edelstein keeps the production moving briskly, aided by Marion Williams’ overtly bookish set design and some effective lighting by Kenneth Posner. And the cast is uniformly excellent, breathing life into roles that too often seem two-dimensional on the page.