By Carol Rocamora . . . 

In a theater season full of starry shows and splashy musicals, a quiet play can sometimes make a profound sound that resonates above the din.

Such is the case of The Wanderers, Anna Ziegler’s soulful new play that just opened at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. A five-character work, it presents itself, gently at first, as an unpretentious modern-day play about early mid-life crisis. But about mid-way through its 105-minute length, the bottom of the play drops out and you’re plunged into unexpected depths.

Katie Holmes, Lucy Freyer, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Sarah Cooper and Dave Klasko

Set in Brooklyn in the period between 1973 and 2017, The Wanderers tells the story of two couples who are grappling with both personal and marital issues. In the first scene We meet Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko)—an Orthodox Jewish couple, the product of an arranged marriage—at their wedding. They hardly know each other, and you empathize with their awkward attempts at intimacy. Lights change, actors change, and we next meet Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Sophie (Sarah Cooper)—he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning wunderkind who’s just returned, flushed with fame, from a book event celebrating his latest publication. She’s his admiring, supportive wife, and a writer, too.

Structured in a series of scenes whose titles are announced on the upstage wall of Marion William’s set, Brechtian style, we follow the parallel stories of these two marriages as they escalate into crisis. Abe and Sophie, who have known each other since childhood, are in a seemingly stable, long-term marriage with two children. But there are cracks in the seams. In contrast to Abe’s success, Sophie has published only one book (ten years ago) whose views were so negative that they’ve discouraged her from writing ever since. While she’s proud of Abe’s celebrity status, she’s also envious and threatened. And now Abe has begun a secret email correspondence with a famous actress named Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes) whom he met at the book signing—an obsession that challenges their marriage to its core. 

Lucy Freyer and Dave Klasko

Meanwhile, Esther is finding her role as a dutiful stay-at-home Orthodox wife to be stifling. Already the mother of two daughters, she challenges her husband’s traditional notion of a large family, declaring that she wants to take birth control pills and pursue a career as a librarian. Schmuli, who longs for a son and a traditional Orthodox life, is frightened by Esther’s search for an independent identity. This conflict escalates to a drastic step that shatters their status quo. 

Eventually, there’s an arresting revelation that ties these two marriages together in ways you’d hardly expect. Therein lies the power of Anna Ziegler’s remarkable story-telling abilities, leading us down two parallel paths to a stunning crossroads that, in turn, reveals new discoveries—namely, that this play is about more than mid-life crises. It’s about what nourishes us spiritually—namely, self-expression through literature and writing, as represented by the stacks of books on the floor (with the upstage wall plastered with pages) of Marion William’s fascinating set. And it’s also about family. “I didn’t know my father” says Abe, articulating a line that we heard just last week in another moving play (Sharr White’s Pictures from Home). 

As if one stunning revelation weren’t enough, there’s a second shock that turns the story completely upside down. No spoiler—it’s yours to discover. 

Eddie Kaye Thomas and Sarah Cooper

Under Barry Edelstein’s graceful direction, the couples—Abe and Sophie, Schmuli and Esther, Abe and Julia (enacting their email exchanges)—move fluidly from one scene to the next, sometimes inhabiting the stage at one time. Each character changes significantly, owing to the demands of the story, and the individual cast members meet the challenge beautifully. Abe’s confrontation with a shocking truth, played powerfully by Eddie Kaye Thomas, is countered by Sarah Cooper’s understated Sophie, whose growth in strength and stature at the play’s end is admirable. Similarly. Lucy Freyer’s Esther is put to a traumatic test that she confronts bravely, while Dave Klasko’s meek Schmuli embraces change with newly found courage. As the beautiful Julia Cheever, Abe’s glamorous correspondent (and the “wild card” of Ziegler’s spellbinding story), Katie Holmes gives a compassionate, warm-hearted performance. 

Above all, this is a play about faith—the kind needed to face what life has in store for us, as the play’s title suggests. “It takes a whole lifetime to grow up,” admits Abe toward the end, as he bursts into a moving recitation of “Avina Malkeinu,” a Hebrew prayer that he summons from his past to give him strength. Anna Ziegler’s thoughtful-provoking play asks us to look within ourselves to find that faith, wherever and whatever it may be. 

The Wanderers. Through April 2 at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre (111 West 46th Street,  between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). 105 minutes, no intermission. 

Photos: Joan Marcus

(cover photo: Katie Holmes and Eddie Kaye Thomas)