There’s no shortage of stories that explore the merits and pitfalls of arranged marriages. In the Jewish subcategory alone, we have “Shtisel,” “Unorthodox” and the perennial “Fiddler on the Roof.” But Anna Ziegler’s awkwardly hitched play “The Wanderers,” which opened Thursday at the Laura Pels Theater, may be the first to consider the problem of forced matches while also exemplifying it.
A shotgun seems to have been involved in forcing its two incompatible tales under one roof. The first begins in 1973 with the wedding of Esther and Schmuli, members of the Satmar Hasidic community who barely know each other. Even if Schmuli (Dave Klasko) is a bit meek, and Esther (Lucy Freyer) alarmingly headstrong, they seem at first like a traditional Orthodox couple, looking forward to making a family.
Nevertheless, within five years, their marriage is in ruins. Schmuli has spirited away their daughters; Esther has fled Brooklyn with their infant son, Abraham.
That’s not a spoiler but the foundation for the second story, which takes place decades later and proceeds in alternating “chapters” with the first. Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is now an acclaimed 40-something novelist, having won, we are told, “a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards before turning 30.” The purple samples of his work provided suggest that the prizes were massively misjudged.
Somewhat too conveniently for himself and the play, Abe is married to the daughter of another Satmar refugee. His mother and hers, best friends since childhood, raised Abe and Sophie (Sarah Cooper) to be each other’s “bashert”: their fate, their soul mates.
Whether they also chose that fate is an open question; for all their similarities, there are also crucial differences. For one thing, Sophie, who is biracial, grew up with a father — a Black professor of environmental science — but Abe rarely saw his after the separation. Precious about his loss, yet glib about other people’s, he has the charismatic narcissist’s ability to finagle subservience.
That’s already a lot of plot for a 105-minute play, even before the lopsided interaction between the two stories, and the potential to explore generational harm through them, is overshadowed by an out-of-the-blue development. At a reading in a Brooklyn bookstore, Abe spots in the front row a well-known actress, a longtime crush who is apparently on his freebie list. Immediately afterward he receives an email that leads to a correspondence featuring thousands of others, many flirtatious to the point of virtual adultery.
Unaccountably, the actress is given the name Julia Cheever, a herring so far past red it’s bleeding. As played by Katie Holmes, with whom the character shares certain biographical features, Julia is glamorous and wry but strangely underpowered. That’s in part a lack of stage authority; in this Off Broadway Roundabout Theater Company production, Holmes, though she appeared in the 2008 Broadway revival of “All My Sons” and in Theresa Rebeck’s “Dead Accounts” in 2012, is still feeling her way around a world that lacks a camera.
But her indistinctness is also the result of the problem of representing virtual communication onstage. Sometimes the director Barry Edelstein has Julia sit face-to-face with Abe, or even touching, as if in the same room. Other times, she wanders about Marion Williams’s set, which consists almost entirely of books, while reciting her emails as if they were soliloquies.
At least hers are down-to-earth. Abe’s are high-flown, pretentious — which is but one way this plot thread recalls the infamous electronic flirtation between the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer and the actress Natalie Portman. Ziegler has said she found that correspondence, part of which was published in The New York Times, “pretty juicy,” but in repurposing it for the play, she seems to have spilled the juice everywhere. As written, and in Thomas’s crafty performance, Abe bears enough of a resemblance to Foer (who also has a mother named Esther) to make you wonder what the point is.
In any case, the real governing spirit here isn’t Foer but the frequently name-dropped Philip Roth; Abe seems to aspire not just to his stature but also to his characters’ unapologetic selfishness. That Sophie tolerates this while also taking nearly sole responsibility for their two children, who could not possibly be as whiny as her husband, is something of a mystery, at least for a half-hour. But pretty soon, and with growing irritation thereafter, the explanatory twist becomes obvious, leaving the big revelation at the end of the play a letdown.
Is it too much of a hint to mention that catfish is not kosher?
Helpfully, Cooper, known for her comic lip-syncing of Donald Trump, has a fresh and natural energy onstage. Even so, the plot mechanics ensure that Sophie isn’t given enough playable material to make us want to stay in her story. And Abe, who thinks he is deep, is unbearable.
If only by contrast, Schmuli and Esther are more engaging. The forces aligned against their happiness are not merely theoretical as with Abe and Sophie; they emerge from social strictures that seem impossible to alter and are thus political. This gives the emotions of their scenes more complexity, and though Freyer can’t do much else with her troubled character, Klasko is at times heartbreaking in his portrait of conflicted and hopelessly unenlightened love.
The comparison between the two marriages, each undone by the search for something outside the characters’ ken, nevertheless feels specious. The dialogue in both sections, sprinkled like parsley with pidgin Yiddish and Hebrew prayer, has a secondhand aura that is also unconvincing. More authentic are the wigs by Tommy Kurzman and costumes by David Israel Reynoso; you certainly never question which world you’re in as the fur hats and wigs — the shtreimels and sheitels — give way to sweatpants.
Still, “The Wanderers” feels, like its vague title, unmoored. That has not been a problem with Ziegler’s previous plays, which include “Photograph 51” (about the molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin) and “Actually” (about a campus sexual assault trial). Both feature stories in which a strong argument is developed single-mindedly through specific conflicts that point toward a crisis.
It’s an irony that in trying to weld two such stories together, “The Wanderers” doesn’t enhance those elements but compromises them. Arranged or chosen, not all marriages are bashert.
Through April 2 at Laura Pels Theater, Manhattan; roundabouttheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.