Sunday, March 5, 2023

My Review of The Wanders is up. I did not like it.

The Wanders: Fantastic Acting Wasted on a Too Familiar Story

Now "wasted" might be a bit too much, but not by a lot. The Wanderers is funny, and the writing of the dialog is excellent. The acting is excellent. But the play is frustrating and problematic.

To summarize the plot very crudely and simplistically, The Wanderers is the story about a rich white Jewish author with a Pulitzer Prize going through a textbook mid-life crisis. Sure, he has a lot of excellent justifications of this banal proceeding. His parents divorced, his wife bores him, he doesn’t like his kids, he has a crisis about his talent – which is Philip Roth level of indulgence. A comparison the playwright makes explicit by name, in case you missed the parallels.

Top: Lucy Freyer as Esther, Dave Klasko as Schmuli, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Abe,
Sarah Cooper as Sophie, Eddie Kaye Thomas again, Katie Holmes as Julia Cheever

The Wanderers opens with an Orthodox Jewish woman on her wedding night. And immediately you think, well how long until this ends in screams and divorce? Because there are no plays that begin with a woman’s voice in Orthodox setting where the woman doesn’t leave, die, or get killed. I understand it. Happy Jewish Orthodox women don’t write plays. But still, it saps the surprise right out of the gate. 

(aside) On a side note, is “Schmuli” a real Jewish Orthodox man’s name or a term of endearment? If is a real name, then why does every other man have the name Schumli in plays? Is it real or just a shorthand way of saying “uptight Jewish man”?

Let me take a moment to applaud the acting. The cast is uniformly great. Katie Holmes - in particular - is amazing. It helps that she has the only role that surprises the audience and is not a cliché. But each and every cast member is great.

Back to the story. The Wanderers shows the story of the Orthodox husband and wife (Schumli and Esther) is interspersed with a contemporary story of a husband and wife of agnostic jews (Abe and Esther). Sophie and Abe are having doubts about their marriage. Abe is the 40-something Pulitzer Prize winning novelist with a beautiful wife and good children who is going through a midlife crisis. Abe is also who were are supposed to identify with.

And the, out of the blue, Abe receives an email with praise from a beautiful, married, successful Hollywood starlet. And their email exchanges push Abe to realize he kind of hates his life. Remember he is rich, married, successful, and a prize-winning author which kind of makes his whining fall flat. And we aren’t really supposed to hate him, but to understand his pain.

And here we face the issue that crops up occasionally when seeing a play; we can no longer empathize with the character, because he is an asshole. Suddenly the axis of the show changes and instead of pulling us into the story we only see every action and emotion as fake. 

I enjoyed the staging and sets immensely, for a while. There are books, bookshelves, and pages everywhere. It sets the stage and mood for a story about book lovers. And then you kind of hate Abe, and the set suddenly seems pretentious. And worse, falsely self-deprecating.

Again, I loved the acting. There wasn’t a bad actor in the group. I believed that men were total, self-absorbed idiots with no saving graces. I loved them as actors and hated them as carboard characters.

The playwright is Anna Ziegler, who is a marvelous playwright normally. And, in The Wanderers the dialog is often witty and well written. I just hated the story. Barry Edelstein directed the show, which moved along at an appropriate speed. Appropriate is not always engaging, but it was appropriate.

At the end of the day, The Wanderers is a show I might suggest to some people. If you are looking for great acting and haven’t had your fill of Woody Allen, this is your show.

The Wanderers
Playwright:Anna Ziegler | DirectorBarry Edelstein | CastSarah Cooper, Lucy Freyer, Katie Holmes, Dave Klasko, Eddie Kay Thomas

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