Review: Old Globe’s ‘The Wanderers’ a thoughtful exploration of complex bonds
It’s not easy making an arranged marriage fly — between people, or between paired relationships in a play.
The course of Anna Ziegler’s probing world-premiere work “The Wanderers,” though, winds up considerably less rocky than those of the two couples’ lives she chronicles.
There may be some bumps along the way in this first production of the Old Globe-commissioned piece, but Ziegler mostly succeeds at tracing the commonalities between the two very disparate worlds in her admirably original work, while also respecting their complexities.
It’s a bit of a high-wire act, twinning the tale of a pair of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn — Esther (Ali Rose Dachis) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko) — with the story of their (mostly) secular counterparts, the likewise married writers Sophie (Michelle Beck) and Abe (Daniel Eric Gold).
Extra degree of difficulty: There’s also a movie star in the mix, Julia Cheever (Janie Brookshire), who becomes a third wheel in Sophie and Abe’s relationship although she essentially only exists for them via the Internet.
The way the married couples’ struggles echo and inform each other might remind you a bit of the way Shakespeare played with parallel relationships — the story of Beatrice and Benedick pinging off that of Hero and Claudio in “Much Ado About Nothing,” for example.
There’s even a suitably Shakespearean moment of messing with identity that brings a smart twist to “The Wanderers,” one that won’t be spoiled here.
One of the most savvy and salient points Ziegler makes in the play, directed with a sensitive and lyrical touch by Globe artistic chief Barry Edelstein, is that while Esther and Schmuli’s fraught marriage may be the one that was formally arranged — as is custom in their Orthodox community — Sophie and Abe’s own relationship was not exactly dictated by the whims of fate.
It also was brought into being in part by the kinds of pressures and influences (conscious or no) that guide all of our lives — by way of parents, friends and our own internalized, acculturated notions of what might constitute an ideal path.
What most intrigues Ziegler, an increasingly important writer who has found a home at the Globe since her tennis-centric piece “The Last Match” premiered here two years ago, is a sense of restlessness and questioning (spiritual and otherwise) that seems to be part of the human condition — a chafing against expectations that’s hardly just the province of those living in a restrictive community.
The meaning of being Jewish is also a strong theme, and “The Wanderers” continues Edelstein’s own rewarding theatrical explorations in that realm.
One aspect of the production that could use some tweaking is the gap between Abe’s seeming confidence and comfort in his own skin (at least at first) and the way the play positions him as a hopeless neurotic.
That’s partly a matter of the witty and committed but slightly too sanguine portrayal by Gold (an accomplished stage and screen actor), and partly a structural issue with the way revelations about Abe’s past are saved for near play’s end.
The scenes between the compelling Klasko and Dachis, though, feel beautifully sharp and real, and Dachis is particularly good at conveying Esther’s resiliency and her increasingly fierce sense of independence.
Beck has excellent scenes as the loving but frustrated Sophie, who can’t seem to reach Abe — particularly as his online correspondence with movie-star Julia, a fan of the Pulitzer-winning Abe’s novels, threatens to become an obsession.
And Brookshire captures just the right note of airy privilege and earnest intellectual posturing in that part, leavened with a sense of genuine kindness. (Julia’s surname can’t help but evoke that bard of upper-class WASP-dom, John Cheever — although his fellow novelist, the Jewish cultural hero Philip Roth, gets name-dropped more explicitly.)
The production cheats a bit on the interactions between Abe and Julia: Their correspondence is supposed to be via email, but somehow the two seem to be able to respond to wordless moods in their back-and-forth banter (maybe they’re just really good at emoticons?).
An imposing table that dominates Marion Williams’ exceedingly spare set becomes both a barrier and a place for the characters to get on the level with each other; and the books scattered about suggest livelihoods, forbidden objects and holy scripture all at once.
Some of Ziegler’s most powerful writing comes when she breaks out of dialogue scenes and into extended, beautifully wrought passages such as Abe’s passionate mash note to Julia, imagined cleverly as a “class notes” contribution to an alumni magazine.
For Abe, it’s an ode to what has remained unsaid — and for us, a sign of how much of these people’s lives has yet to be written.
When: 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 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