World Premiere: The Wanderers Are Finding Themselves at the Old Globeby Pat Launer March 28, 2018
A young Orthodox couple walks into a play. They’re about to embark on an arranged marriage. But the road will be rocky, and one of them will stray from the Hasidic path.
Meanwhile, two celebrities – a famous novelist and a movie star – are in the throes of a dangerously flirtatious, extramarital, electronic epistolary relationship.
They may not exist in the same timeframe, but their lives, their love and their link form the crux of Anna Ziegler’s new play, “The Wanderers,” having its world premiere at The Old Globe, which commissioned the work.
When Anna’s thought-provoking tennis drama, “The Last Match,” was produced at the Globe in 2016, the theater’s artistic director, Barry Edelstein, was anxious to invite her back. And she was eager to work with him (he hadn’t directed her prior effort here).
The time has arrived. And the two have become members in a mutual admiration society.
“She’s very, very smart,” Barry says of Anna. “She’s a thinker, a really good writer and a prose stylist. It’s common, in contemporary theater, to write inarticulate characters, and subjects that are hard to communicate. She creates characters who are erudite and articulate, and so much fun to have around. In her writing, she’s fast, smart and very un-precious. She’s also a wonderful collaborator.”
Anna has worked closely with Barry in shaping this play over the past two years, including presenting it at the Globe’s Powers New Voices Festival last year, and staging a workshop in New York.
She finds Barry to be “deeply thoughtful, an absolutely sensitive reader of plays and thinker about the world.”
Something else they have in common: a borough.
The Brooklyn Connection
Ziegler lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two young sons, just blocks away from where she grew up. Edelstein spent five years in Williamsburg before moving to San Diego.
Both lived in close proximity to Brooklyn’s enormous Hasidic community, one of the biggest Orthodox Jewish communities outside of Israel and one of the largest concentrations of Jews in the United States.
So they share a familiarity with that kind of zealous commitment: the closeness and insularity of the community and the stringent, strictly enforced rules that comprise the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.
“That world has always been of tremendous interest to me,” Barry says. “They live a life that’s extreme: both beautiful and restrictive. They’re extremely sealed off. I once mentioned to a Hasidic man I know that I worked on Shakespeare plays, and he had no idea what I was talking about.”
“For a long time,” says Anna, “I’ve wanted to write about arranged marriages. The concept always fascinated me. Surprisingly, a lot of those marriages really work. There’s nothing clear-cut about marriage or love. There’s no single formula that makes it work.”
Her new play concerns love and marriage in disparate situations. The focus is on two separate couples and their separate stories, which captivate both writer and director.
Before rehearsals began, I talked to them both, individually, but their comments about the play and its subject matter were remarkably similar.
“Both stories are really, really interesting,” says Barry. “A good part of our development process was figuring out how they relate. It’s hard to talk about a play that has a twist. We don’t want to spoil it for anyone.”
“Initially,” Anna confesses, “I didn’t know how these two couples connected. They seemed so different. The celebrity couple’s online interactions are loosely based on the New York Times-published email correspondence between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer in the summer of 2016.”
They’re both Jewish luminaries: Portman an Israeli-born actor, Foer an American novelist.
“Their conversation was superficially about the movie she was making about Israel,” Anna continues. “But they seemed to be trying to impress each other. They were flirting intellectually. Most of the people who read the letters felt they revealed something a little uncomfortable.
“So that’s my other strand: the Jewish novelist becomes obsessed with the [non-Jewish] actress, who’s a fan of his, and that leads to a growing relationship, although they’re both married to other people. They’re equally taken with the idea of being in contact. They participate in flirtatious intellectual banter.”
In the play, Abe, the novelist, is “essentially the main character.”
“He was really fun to write,” says Anna. “He’s a classic neurotic Jewish intellectual – self-deprecating in the vein of Philip Roth, whose name courses through the play. He’s trying to explain himself. His wife, Sophie, also a writer, is trying to get away from herself.”
There’s something of a love triangle among Sophie, Abe and the actress, Julia.
“Abe is a deliciously terrible character,” says Anna. “He’s incredibly selfish. The challenge for the actor playing him is that he has to be likable. I like him, though I think he’s flawed. I think if we do it right and act it sensitively, he won’t seem like a stereotype. I’m certainly playing with a [novelist Philip] Roth kind of character.
“There’s a through-line of inherited trauma in the play,” Anna adds, “with their relationships and their parents. These characters are haunted by the Holocaust, in such a way that they never feel comfortable or at home.”
Embedded in the drama is the question of how trauma works its way through generations.
These two couples live in different time periods. The lives of the newlyweds start in the late 1970s, when she’s 27 and he’s 30 years old. The play follows them for 20 years. We view the relationship of the contemporary trio, who are in their mid-late 30s, over the course of 18 months.
Anna sees “a sense of innocence and youthfulness in the younger couple. At the very beginning of the play, they’re telling us about their wedding and what led up to it. We see part of the wedding night.”
She’s using some Yiddish in the script, and there will be a Hasidic consultant, to help get the clothes, the language and all the other cultural elements just right.
“What’s interesting about these characters,” says Anna, “is that they don’t hide anything. They’re unfiltered. There’s a bravado and an honesty in that – saying just what they think. For some, that’s off-putting. But I find it quite entertaining and refreshing. They’re all so deeply confident and love their use of language. But, of course, underlying that is a deep insecurity.
“The play is not about gender roles,” she asserts. “But I think the portrait of Esther presents a very strong, complicated person. In this relationship, Esther has more power than her husband, Schmuli, and that’s problematic. It gets them in trouble. Part of the problem is that he feels emasculated.
“Abe’s wife, Sophie, feels an unfair burden in her marriage. She’s in the difficult position of having married a difficult person. It doesn’t make her life easy. As an artist, she’s both drawn to him and repelled by him. Also, he’s much more successful and famous than she.”
The Electronic Conundrum
One of the challenges of staging this play, which will be presented in the round in the White Theatre, is how to present the electronic interactions.
“We have to find a way to do it dynamically,” says Anna. “We’ll probably establish some convention, and then move on to represent how they feel writing to each other. It should feel like they’re in the same room. It should be quite intimate.”
“A lot of writers are now creating material that takes place in cyberspace,” says Barry. “For many people in real life, that’s their entire relationship. In this play, passages of the story that are in email, IM and text will quickly start to sound as naturalistic as regular conversation. It’s up to me and the designers to figure out how to make that happen, to allow the actors to make contact with each other.
“Sometimes the characters will be facing each other,” Barry reveals. “Sometimes their messages may be projected onto the floor or onto some furniture. It’s not narrative information, just a kind of texture to suggest that these are people who live in a world of words. Snow is also a big image in the play. We’ve got to somehow make words into snowflakes.”
“Anna’s theme,” says Barry, “which was also in ‘The Last Match,’ is the question of why people can’t be okay with the life they have. Both plays are peopled by individuals who are not content in their own skin. They’re looking for more. They live highly articulate and highly examined lives.
“These are not midlife crises,” he continues. “They’re young people, saying ‘There must be something more.’ I really relate to that idea of always looking for the next thing. It can be toxic, preventing people from being content.”
As Anna puts it, “The play is about a kind of restlessness we all have. These couples live in very different worlds, but they all suffer from the same restlessness. It’s hard for them to find contentment, let alone happiness.
“The young wife, Esther, is not comfortable in the Hasidic community,” Anna continues. “She longs for certain freedoms, a different function in her marriage. She’s trying to stick to the letter of the law, but she’s chafing against it.
“Both couples are on a kind of quest for meaning. Esther looks for it in books. She illicitly reads books she’s not supposed to read. In the modern-day story, the quest involves the interrelationships of the writer, his wife and the actress.”
As is typically the case in Anna’s plays, there’s humor.
“There’s a certain humor to be found in clashes of personality,” she admits.
And what will the audience come away with?
Anna thinks “a number of things will be discussion-worthy. Questions about the Hasidic community, for instance. That kind of restriction can be seen as positive or negative. There’s something beautiful about that kind of order and meaning in your life.
“Another question is what it takes to love someone. In one case, someone very actively leaves the relationship. And in the other, there’s a kind of passive departure. That poses the question of the relative merits of these approaches.
“And I hope the play makes audiences think about their own relationship, and what baggage they bring to the relationship from relationships they observed growing up.”
In the original Portman/Foer electronic correspondence, the actress wrote: “I realized how much Judaism for me was connected to yearning, to wanting what you don’t have … I have that longing, yearning, ‘it’s-better-over-there’ tendency … [As Jews], we’re always in the midst of replacing one fulfilled desire with a new desire, accepting a new piece of knowledge with another question.”
But Barry feels strongly that the play is not just for or about Jews.
“In theater,” he explains, “the more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.
“Every religion has fundamentalist sects, which have a certain purity of beliefs and practices, but the downside of extremism.
“And, like Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, we all have these intense connections with other people. And we’re all trying to figure out how to be happy with the life we have.”
A 2015 profile of Anna in the New York Times suggested that “[all] her plays explore ethical issues of one kind or another, the duties we owe to ourselves and to each other. They are filled with characters … who are trying to behave well and only sometimes succeeding.”
As one character in an early play of hers puts it, “Nothing and no one is just one thing.”
Anna admits to believing that “most people are sort of well-intentioned. They’re all coming at the world in the best way. And yet, enormous mistakes occur anyway, and we have to live our lives knowing that. I have a lot of sympathy for each of my characters. They’re all really trying to do their best.”
As for the significance of her title, “The Wanderers,” Anna says, “I think it will be self-evident.” Α
The world premiere, “The Wanderers,” runs from April 6 – May 6 at The Old Globe. For tickets and information: 619-234-5623; theoldglobe.org.