At 40, Anna Ziegler is the most-produced playwright at Washington Theater J — more than Neil Simon, Arthur Miller or anyone else. Ziegler’s writing is simply radiant. Her dialogue sings in ways both artful and lyrical.
Ziegler has tapped into our current cultural zeitgeist in this second production of her latest play centering on two Jewish couples – one secular Brooklyn-dwelling intellectuals, the other tradition-bound Chasidim of the stringent Satmar sect – and an interloper. “The Wanderers” ponders unrelenting questions about life’s meaning and purpose.
Existential anxieties filtered through smart, elegiac banter and dark-night-of-the-soul revelations are putty beneath Ziegler’s pen, yet there’s nothing heavy handed about Ziegler’s approach. As serious as the underlying issues are, “The Wanderers” is smartly witty, dryly funny and fully engaging over its 105 intermissionless minutes.
Elegant direction of Amber McGinnis allows Ziegler’s poetic and clever dialogue to sing. Her characters are flawed, infuriating, thoughtless and lovingly believable.
On designer Andrew Cohen’s bare stage — a steely gray circular raised platform, a vast array of hanging lamps illuminating the darkened backdrop like twinkling stars — a single bench and a handful of props create disparate worlds, blocks apart in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
One is the insular household of Esther and Schmuli, who we first meet on their wedding night when they awkwardly navigate what’s “now” and what’s “next” in their stricture-filled lives.
The other is the passionately intellectual home of a pair of celebrated writers. Abe wallows in worry that his early success — two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer — is untenable, while his middle-school sweetheart-turned-wife, Sophie, silently envies her husband’s success. Her own novel failed. Sophie struggles with motherhood’s mental load, carrying the weight of household and family responsibilities that allow Abe to write. Their life is charmed, until it’s not.
As these separate families’ conflicted lives play out, Ziegler weaves in some surprising intersections. Esther, played with a heavy Jewish Brooklyn accent by Theater J newcomer Dina Thomas, is one of Ziegler’s most fascinating characters, clad in Heather Lockard’s unfashionably modest dresses, wigs and headscarves, she’s surprisingly rebellious. “Shtisel” fans will understand how audacious young Esti is —not marrying until 23 – oy!, listening to music on an FM radio station, wanting to work outside the home.
With wild beard and peyos — long sidelocks —Jamie Smithson gives Schmuli a Germanic Yiddish accent, the hard Gs become Ks, but it’s his steadfast adherence to Chasidic practice that causes untenable strife in his household.
Another Theater J newcomer, Kathryn Tkel imbues Sophie with a quick wit and sense of irony, how else could she tolerate and love her often long-suffering husband Abe, portrayed by Theater J regular Alexander Strain. Here Strain digs deep into Abe’s collective subconscious, unearthing multi-generational trauma rooted in his family’s past tragedies, but he seems to carry the weight of the Jewish people — anxiety, depression, uncertainty with him. Finally, Tessa Klein brings an unvarnished authenticity to her role as movie star Julia Cheever.
Whether secular or Satmar religious, in “The Wanderers” Ziegler suggests that in our contemporary point of view, we are all lost souls — seekers searching to connect, explorers looking for an idea of home that links past to future.
On their wedding night, Ziegler has Esther pose Schmuli a vital question: “What do you want in life?” Later Schmuli, clad in his 18th-century black coat and hat — the uniform of the Chasid — cries at the beauty of fresh snow, for he has found a God he never felt in synagogue or in his prayers.
It’s Esther, the quiet, unexpected rebel who articulates the 21st century’s existential question at the heart of Ziegler’s lovingly rendered play: “Who,” Esther asks, “really understands whether or not they are happy?”
If you have thus far missed Ziegler’s earlier works – the probing torn-from-scientific-history “Photograph 51”; the heart-breaking family drama “Another Way Home”; or the searing sex-crime two-hander “Actually,” soon to be a limited series on HBO — be sure to pick up a ticket for “The Wanderers.” It’s essential viewing in this era of endemic unhappiness, post-generational trauma and collective societal despair.
“The Wanderers,” through March 15. Theater J at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington; $39-$69; for tickets, call 202-777-3210 or visit www.theaterj.org.