The Wanderers, playing through Sun., Dec. 18 at City Theatre, tells the story of two Jewish couples as they navigate married life, family wounds, and betrayal across different time periods.
Playwright Anna Ziegler makes it known right away that at least one of the marriages is doomed. The play begins with a monologue from Sophie (Allison Strickland), a writer and young mom, tracing the history of her marriage to Abe (Jed Resnick). She says she remembers both the moment in high school when she knew she was going to marry Abe and the moment, more recently, when she decided to leave him.
Present-day Brooklyn-based novelists Abe and Sophie have a stale marriage with a competitive undercurrent — Abe’s work has achieved significantly more acclaim than Sophie’s, and Sophie has subsequently prioritized homemaking, slowly eroding her sense of self as Abe takes her more and more for granted. We meet them after a successful reading of Abe’s new book. He can’t help but radiate excitement that a gorgeous movie star, Julia Cheever (Sarah Goeke), sat in the front row at the reading and has reached out to Abe via email.
In the 1970s, Shmuli (Nick Lehane) and Esther (Moira Quigley) hardly know each other when they are finally alone for the first time on their wedding night. As Orthodox Jews, their upbringing has not prepared them for the more egalitarian relationship Esther seems to want, and they fumble through the beginning of their time together.
Ziegler delicately lays out the arcs of both marriages without disclosing what connects them, although those details become clear about halfway through. Sometimes, the unspoken resonance between scenes is The Wanderers' most engaging offering. Although the play isn’t explicit on this front, the marriages clearly deteriorate under the characters’ investment in patriarchal cultures, only one of which is religious.
Esther has more curiosity and self-possession than Orthodox women are supposed to have, something we learn through Shmuli’s efforts to discourage her from following her desires and interests. Things fly off the rails when Esther tells her husband she doesn’t want to have any more children.
Sophie continues to chafe under the continued assumption that her work and self-worth are not as important as Abe’s as he becomes increasingly drawn into his correspondence with Julia. Resnick propels the plot as Abe, the self-involved, neurotic, and somewhat myopic novelist. Although Strickland’s Sophie has a more profound emotional arc, she isn’t awarded the same amount of attention.The two-story set by Anne Mundell hosts both Brooklyn apartments and a string of interactions that take place online. Director Colette Robert bridges the digital distance between Abe and Julia with staging that brings the two closer together but still leaves them fundamentally disconnected.
The set design initially seemed heavy-handed, dominated by a blue and white color palette and a mosaic-like pattern that’s both extremely evocative of Jewish stars. However, the appearance of the set changes with Natalie Robin’s light design, slowly illuminating the set’s connection to one of the piece’s key motifs, the snowflake.
Each respective marriage visits well-worn territory with familiar conflict. The modern-day story of an upper-middle-class woman, torn between her personal and professional life, clashing with her ego-driven husband shows how little progress has been made compared to Esther's arc of a spirited woman from a traditional culture who has to fight her husband for autonomy. They become much more interesting when set against each other, drawing out the consequences of the tensions between community and family, and with the self.
The Wanderers. Continues through Sun., Dec. 18. City Theatre. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $20-32. citytheatrecompany.org