The last time the fast-rising playwright Anna Ziegler was at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, it was with “The Last Match,” the story of an intense rivalry between two top tennis pros.
Now she’s back with another world-premiere work — one that’s more of a doubles match. But “The Wanderers” is not about tennis, and the play finds Ziegler working without a net in more ways than one.
The new piece, which begins performances today at the Balboa Park theater, sets out to tie together a pair of relationship stories that could hardly seem more different.
One is the tale of an arranged marriage between two Orthodox Jews from a strict Hasidic community. The other is an account of a coy and candid online correspondence between an upstart author and a Hollywood star.
And if those sound like two separate plays entirely, it turns out that’s exactly how “The Wanderers” started out.
As Ziegler tells it, the Globe and its artistic director, Barry Edelstein, commissioned her to write a new piece right after the February 2016 premiere of “The Last Match,” a play that eventually was to land off-Broadway last fall.
One complicating factor: Ziegler was due to have a baby that September and wanted to finish a draft before that blessed event.
So she began writing a play about an arranged marriage in a Hasidic community, a topic that had long fascinated her.
While she was working on that, the New York Times published an email correspondence between the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and the movie star Natalie Portman. Ziegler found the exchange “pretty juicy and fascinating,” and it inspired her to begin a second play.
And then she got a little stuck.
“My due date was coming up, and I couldn’t see my way through either of (the plays) — I had maybe 30 pages of each. And at a certain point, as the deadline was approaching, I thought: ‘Maybe they’re the same play.’ And I started to kind of weave them together.
“And it actually didn’t seem so crazy. It sort of felt, in a strange way, that I was dealing with some similar territory. They were really both about these people who were kind of looking for something more than they had.
“The play wasn’t called ‘The Wanderers’ then. That has emerged since. But there was this sense (the characters) were all kind of wandering.”
Just how that manifests in the play is something that neither Ziegler nor Edelstein, who is directing the production, wants to divulge in too much detail, for fear of giving away some twists and surprises.
But one thing that’s clear, both from the genesis of this piece and from her previous works, is that Ziegler seems to relish a challenge.
“The Last Match,” after all, incorporated actual tennis matches — stylized, yes, with no backhand lobs dropping into the audience, but still more ambitious than many sports-related plays have dared to be.
Ziegler also has been on a hot streak lately. “The Last Match” was running in New York at the same time as “Actually,” a timely play that delves into issues of sexual consent; that piece, which recently won an Ovation Award for its production at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse, will have its local premiere at San Diego Rep this fall.
And not long before “The Last Match” hit the Globe, Ziegler’s play “Photograph 51” — about the pioneering but underappreciated scientist Rosalind Franklin — landed on London’s West End, with Nicole Kidman in the lead role.
Her play “Boy,” a true-life-inspired drama of gender identity, also continues to receive productions around the country.
As wide-ranging as the topics of those plays might be, Ziegler says the idea of people who harbor a restless discontent with their lives is one that threads through virtually all her work, and is perhaps “most bold” in “The Wanderers.”
“I think it’s the central theme of this play,” as she puts it. “All my plays are variations on a theme, and some of them sort of play certain notes louder than others. I think in this one, the dissatisfaction and longing for something else is probably the loudest note.”
Two stories into one
Ziegler’s own dissatisfaction with the two plays she was working on helped guide her to the idea of combining them. And that process got an important boost from the collaboration with Edelstein, she says.
“It’s been great to work on it with one director from the beginning,” she says. “Barry and I have had these great, long conversations about how these stories might come together. He really helped me find some important connections.”
Edelstein calls the playwright “just a lovely, lovely human being, and a great writer. And she has a sensibility that matches really closely with my own. So we have a terrific kind of sympathy with each other as artists.
“And there’s something about her work that feels intuitively right for the Globe’s audience. It’s very literary, it’s very smart, it’s very funny, and it’s dealing with big questions in ways that are accessible.”
Among the show’s stars is the stage and screen actor Daniel Eric Gold, who plays Abe, the celebrity writer. (He’s joined in the cast by Janie Brookshire as Julia, the movie star; Dave Klasko as Schmuli, a young Orthodox Jew; Ali Rose Dachis as Esther, his wife; and Michelle Beck as Sophie, Abe’s wife.)
Gold, a star of TV’s “Ugly Betty” who has appeared in numerous other series as well as big-screen movies, says that above and beyond the specifics of these contrasting characters’ lives and relationships, “the play really speaks much more to the human condition.
“I think it speaks to this itch, this unresolved yearning — are we living the best life we can live, or is there another life that could make us more happy?
“It’s a matter of finding meaning, and looking for happiness. I think ultimately that’s what all these characters are doing, is looking for meaning.”
Gold adds that his character, Abe, is “very much someone who struggles with how to live the best life, and how to live a satisfying life. (He’s) feeling the pull of religion, and feeling repulsed at the same time.
“Abe reaches out and tries on a bit of a different persona. He wanders into a place that could endanger his marriage, could endanger his family. Because he’s searching for something.”
And if that search leads Abe — and those around him — into some troublesome situations, Ziegler says that what’s true for him is true for the characters in all her plays: They’re “really flawed human beings who are trying their best. And I really have a lot of sympathy for all of them.
“I guess my hope is that audiences will feel the same way — that even when some of (the characters) are behaving badly or selfishly, that they’ll be seen as relatable. And human.”
When: In previews. Opens April 13. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays (plus 2 p.m. April 25); 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays (no matinee today or April 22). Through May 6.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: About $30-$86 (discounts available)
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Perspective on the play
As part of its “Subject Matters” series of play-related discussions, the Globe is hosting a free talk by Frieda Vizel, a cultural consultant to “The Wanderers.” Vizel grew up in Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic community in New York state, and eventually left with her son. The Globe says she “now explores contemporary Hasidic culture through creative and academic work.”
Her appearance will take place at 6 p.m. May 1 in the Globe’s Hattox Hall. Call (619) 234-5623 or go to theoldglobe.org for details.