Local theatergoers are currently blessed with solid productions of two riveting, very different dramas by acclaimed playwright Anna Ziegler — Keegan Theatre’s Boy, and Theater J’s D.C. premiere production of The Wanderers. Both plays trace paths to forgiveness through painful circumstances, while The Wanderers (★★★★☆), in particular, sheds light on what might truly be meant by the phrase “religious freedom.”
Told through the parallel, Brooklyn-set love stories of Hasidic Jewish couple Esther (Dina Thomas) and Schmuli (Jamie Smithson), and modern marrieds Sophie (Kathryn Tkel) and Abe (Alexander Strain), The Wanderers weaves the two threads of romance into a tight, funny, multi-generational family saga. Sophie, a struggling writer whose mother was Jewish, and whose father is African-American, wittily describes herself as “Jewish-ish.” Even when she’s offstage, her sharp-eyed perspective greatly informs the audience point-of-view of her husband Abe, the far more successful novelist of the two. And Sophie is offstage much of the time, as Abe engages an ego-stroking fascination with a famous admirer of his books, the auburn-haired movie star Julia (Tessa Klein).
Offering a physical embodiment of an affinity that blossoms via DMs and online chats, director Amber McGinnis stages Abe and Julia’s epistolary repartee with the actors playing scenes face-to-face. All the better to maximize the creeping sense that the pair, both otherwise devoted to their respective spouses and children, are treading too close to a dangerous line. The direction, along with Strain and Klein’s simpatico chemistry, wring every ounce of dreadful anticipation from Abe and Julia’s budding relationship, as Tkel’s excitable Sophie maintains audience sympathy throughout her professional and personal travails.
And for all the moving relatability of the play’s depiction of contemporary couplehood, The Wanderers saves its real gut-punch of love overcoming acts of betrayal for the flip side of its narrative coin. As arranged married couple Esther and Schmuli, Thomas and Smithson convey the common sense and sensitivities of two not equally devout ultra-Orthodox Jews who don’t operate with the cynical view of the world that rears its head in Abe and Sophie’s relationship. Abe and Sophie can spot all the red flags, while relatively naïve Esther and Schmuli have little idea what shocking reversals await them. The Wanderers swerves into a few surprising turns, in fact, and gets a helluva lot of mileage out of scenic designer Andrew Cohen’s swooping backdrop and a single bench — which also serves as a bassinet, a seat inside a movie star’s trailer, and even a casket, when that bell comes sadly tolling.
The Wanderers runs through March 15, at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $39 to $69. Call 202-777-3210, or visit www.theaterj.org.
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