For those politically incorrect theatergoers who really miss seeing their annual Woody Allen movie, there is Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers.” For those who don’t miss Allen, that’s no excuse not to see “The Wanderers,” which opened Thursday at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre after its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2018.
Ziegler goes places far darker and scarier than Allen ever imagined, but begins where the legendary filmmaker often does. The character here is Abe, and he is the very talented and equally neurotic guy that Allen played for decades before turning this icon over to younger actors as varied as Kenneth Branagh (“Celebrity”) and Owen Wilson (“Midnight in Paris”).
Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a celebrated writer of fiction who has a Pulitzer or two on his resume, which has brought him into brief contact with a glamorous movie star (Katie Holmes looking, well, glamorous in David Israel Reynoso’s costumes). Most of us know this affluent, aspirational world of publishing and entertainment in Gotham from Allen’s movies where the shoptalk often centers on whether the New York Times reviewed your last book and/or if Hollywood is picking up the option on that book. Abe frets and obsesses, and as embodied by Thomas of “American Pie” fame, he displays more nervous ticks than Alvy Singer and Isaac Davis combined.
While amply loading the narrative with all of Abe’s accomplishments and accolades, Ziegler immediately diverges from the usual Allen storyline by making her Jewish hero’s quest something more than getting laid by a shiksa. Abe worries about his wife, Sophie (Sarah Cooper).
Sophie is also a writer, but unlike Abe, she hasn’t been able to match his success. In fact, her first and only novel got a less than stellar review from the Times, and that was almost 10 years ago. (Let’s forget for a moment that few first-time novelists land a review, good or bad, in the Times.) “The Wanderers” never breaks out of the Allen mold in which every character measures failure on a scale of Philip Roth to Cate Blanchett. (Both names are prominently mentioned in “The Wanderers,” if you’re wondering.) Sophie now thinks two children are perhaps not enough. Maybe she and Abe need a third, despite her past concerns about overpopulation.
Ziegler expertly intersperses this Urban Homes kitchen-sink drama with two storylines that could not be more different. In one timeframe, Abe pursues his relationship with the movie star online. Thomas is appropriately smitten and giddy; Holmes is appropriately enigmatic and one-dimensional. In the other timeframe of the 1970s, an Orthodox couple named Esther and Schmuli start their family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. In the beginning, it’s not exactly clear why we’re following Esther and Schmuli’s story except for the fact that’s it’s pretty obvious that one of their three children turns out to be either Abe or Sophie, who have known each other since childhood.
In a number of his earlier movies, Allen takes us back to his characters’ humble life in Brooklyn. Those characters are Jewish, but few are Orthodox or even religious, and in no way are any of them as flesh-and-blood as Esther and Schmuli, who are stunningly portrayed by Lucy Freyer and Dave Kalsko under Barry Edelstein’s subtle and always fluid direction. Ziegler has written them with the same humor that distinguishes the more contemporary segments of “The Wanderer,” but it is here that the playwright abandons the Allen playbook and takes Lucy and Dave to a place that is labeled “destruction” in the play’s chapter titles. These titles are spoken and also projected on Marion Williams’s magnificent set, constructed of books that constantly shape-shift under Kenneth Posner’s exquisite lighting.
“The Wanderers” lasts only 105 minutes without intermission, and yet effectively holds enough storylines for a half dozen lesser plays. We never meet Sophie’s parents, but as pieced together from what she and Esther tell us, they emerge as two of the strongest characters ever to have not graced the stage. Their life together sparkles with energy and could be a whole other play.
The “destruction” that comes to Esther and Schmuli is also visited upon the marriage of Abe and Sophie. In their final scenes, Thomas and Cooper are able to match Freyer and Klasko’s very grounded intensity. As Ziegler makes clear, Abe and Sophie are both writers, and if life turns into a tragic mess, there is always fiction to piece it back together.