Forget “Bond, James Bond.” For my money the best line Sean Connery ever uttered comes midway through the 2000 drama Finding Forrester. That’s when Connery, playing a reclusive novelist, gruffly informs an aspiring teenage writer that “writers only give readings to get laid.”
That truism jumpstarts Anna Ziegler’s wise and witty new playThe Wanderers, now receiving its East Coast premiere at Theater J ahead of an off-Broadway staging early next year. Ziegler introduces us to her protagonist, two-time National Book Award-winner Abe Hausman (Alexander Strain), just after an Oscar-worthy actress attends one of his readings.
“I mean, she sat right up front,” Abe brags to his wife, Sophie (Kathryn Tkel), who stayed home in Brooklyn with the kids that fateful night. “She wanted me to see her. She was engaging me, somehow.”
He shares the movie star encounter while holding his laptop and reading aloud an email from the actress, Julia (Tessa Klein), who has divulged that both she and her husband are fans. The compliment goes straight to Abe’s hormones, and soon he’s not sharing his instant messages from “People magazine’s most beautiful woman in the world” with Sophie, who, as played by Tkel, is pretty darn stunning herself.
Much of the dialogue unspools as electronic correspondence. Ziegler is a pro at playing with form, and devising new ways to tell stories from the sexting era through the old-fashioned medium of live theater. The Wanderers is her fourth show produced at Theater J; the most recent, 2018’s Actually, provided an expansive view of college rape allegations using just two performers. Five actors roam the stage in The Wanderers, and director Amber McGinnis has employed some of D.C.’s best in this layered play about the many ways romances commence and come apart.
Abe’s own parents, for example, never got a meet-cute moment. Schmuli(Jamie Smithson) and Esther (Dina Thomas), a Hassidic couple, are introduced to the audience on the night of their arranged marriage. Disrobing does not go well. Awkward Schmuli can’t seduce his wife to save his phylacteries, and the best compliment Esther can muster is that she likes her new husband’s shoes.
Audience members who have with some familiarity with Hassidic sects will find it easier to follow the Schmuli/Esther storyline, but Smithson and Thomas are so comfortable in these tragi-comic roles that any empathetic viewer will be drawn in. Klein strolls the stage wearing Stuart Weitzman heels with grace, while Tkel gives off plenty of no-nonsense mom vibes.
Strain’s Abe is the least sympathetic character onstage, thanks to a combination of slightly monotone acting, Ziegler’s writing, and society’s general frustration with egotistical assholes who cheat on their wives.
We’ve seen this guy before. In theater, The Wanderers borrows from The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s popular two-person musical that recaps the story of a courtship, marriage and divorce. Ziegler was likely also inspired also by correspondence The New York Times published between D.C. native Jonathan Safran Foer and actress Natalie Portman. In that sense, The Wanderers is nothing new, yet with help from McGinnis and her cast, Ziegler so beautifully interweaves three romances that the talky 100-minute play coasts by. Each vignette closes with a mini-cliffhanger, and a game-changing twist about 80 minutes in makes viewers question how all the previous puzzle pieces fit together.
The Wanderers is that rare play worth seeing twice, with a plot to ruminate on for a lifetime. The circumstances unraveling these marriages—a repressive religious culture and emails from a movie star—may be atypical, but the big picture problems are universal: Raising young children is taxing, marriage is a challenge, and the grass may always appear greener elsewhere for occupants of an urban apartment, a suburban colonial, or a Brooklyn brownstone.
To March 15 at 1529 16th St. NW. $39–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.
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