In an abstract space of vague indifference, two new couples wrestle with their futures –shared and separate – in Anna Ziegler’s new play The Wanderers, now premiering at the Old Globe Theatre.
Each conversation is lively and bright with hope, but their two sets of rules operate in separate worlds.
Sophie and Abe are novelists, moderately successful but largely blocked by the distractions of New York City apartment with kids. Esther and Schmuli are similarly burdened/blessed but their ambitions and frustrations are ignored in their duties to their communities.
They’re all Jewish, though Sophie is bi-racial (required, she notes, to deal both with slavery and the Holocaust). Her idle chatter, and Abe’s, tends to be story-telling notions and literary gossip. Not the other couple. As Hasidic Jews, even in private, they suffer the clamps of culthood.
So, Hasidim: Sect or cult? I can only give my personal reaction as a way-outsider: Their drab appearance and rigid disinterest in the world around them suggests a form of extreme introspection all too familiar. But who really cares? They’re welcome to believe whatever they wish as long as they extend the same courtesy to others. If pressed, I’d say cult, of the sort that contacts the supernatural or lets loose the dogs of authority on non-conformists. Remember the “duck test” – If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then probably it is a duck.
Anyway, complications ensue. At a public reading of his works, Abe attracts the attention of a glamorous and successful film star, who writes him a fan email. This leads to an accelerating extravaganza of mutual admiration which threatens to spiral into actual real-world complications.
Meanwhile, the effervescent Esther and the nervously plodding Schmuli stumble into a conflict far less flashy yet sinister and real. One family strife leads toward greater understanding and rueful wisdom. The other, is apparently doomed to find no simple conclusion, just lasting woe with a faint hope of enlightenment. As the play progresses, the stories actually brush against each other, sparking more revelations.
Zeigler, whose last play at the Globe contrasted the backgrounds of rival tennis champions, has some useful observations about the universal pull of blood ties and the relative importance of community approval. Her characters serve her well in these musings and offer actors just enough substance to inspire extra individual work.
Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein must have been a comfort to his cast, shaping the interplay of ideas and the contrast of very separate but still related worlds without resort to restrictive stereotyping. The work seems to flow around set designer Marion Williams’ large but not intrusive table, surrounded by growing tacks of books and illuminated by Amanda Zieve’s cool, impersonal fluorescent sticks, like the currents of time and ideas.
David Israel Reynoso’s Hasidic costumes stir frustrated respect and the outfits worn by Janie Brookshire, as that movie star, very subtly support the special aura such a part requires.
Ms. Brookshire needs only to move with ravishing grace and laugh uproariously on cue to deliver this star, but she does much more. Her creamy spreading of Ziegler’s dialogue, the heavy eyelids, the mysterious connection with unseen powers – all the telltale spoor of the masses’ goddess are there.
Ali Rose Dachis ignites Esther’s joy like a natural flame that eclipses the ritual shroud of her heritage. Her fragment of wedding dance provides a welcome balance to some of the play’s darker orthodoxy and her emotional engagement as events start to drag her down is seriously moving. Dave Klasko as her appalled yet fascinated husband never quite dumps his nebbish presence even when coping better than expected with adversity. Daniel Eric Gold, skinny, intense, scavenging for useable nuggets of writing, and Michelle Beck, doing something similar “backwards and in high heels” (a Rogers/Astaire reference), are acceptable if less interesting as the young literary couple.
As a goy raised in the empty plains of Flyover America in pre-television times, I came late to Jewish culture, lacking any ingrown preconceptions. The northeastern seaboard has always seemed to me an exotic field of inspirational dreams where big breaks sometimes lie on the sidewalks free for the taking by those who recognize their good fortune. So, I am always grateful for a bit of art such as The Wanderers that offers another peek behind the ornate curtain. I hope to hear more on this (and other subjects) from Ms. Ziegler and Edelstein.
(Continues in the Old Globe’s White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 6, 2018.)