Several times throughout “The Wanderers,” Anna Ziegler’s very Jewish play running at City Theatre through Dec. 18, the Yiddish phrase “Ein ba’al ha-nes makir b’niso” is repeated by various characters.
The phrase translates to: “The person who is in the midst of the miracle, doesn’t recognize it at the time.”
It’s a fitting mantra for the two seemingly disparate couples whose relationships are at the heart of this provocative 105-minute production.
Abe and Sophie, both writers, are secular Jews living in Brooklyn. Schmuli and Esther are members of the Satmar Jewish community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — a Hasidic sect that eschews modern culture and adheres to strict gender roles. The production’s scenes alternate between the two couples, who at first appear unconnected, but whose lives soon begin to reflect and illuminate each other’s.
Despite being an award-winning writer of popular novels, and having a loving wife and two children, Abe is dissatisfied with his life. Sophie, a writer who has been unable to achieve professional success, is dissatisfied as well. Esther, a free spirit confined by the boundaries of her ultra-Orthodox community, is likewise discontent. Schmuli, wholly devoted to the life into which he was born, never even wonders whether he is fulfilled.
As Esther says at one point in the show: “Who really understands whether or not they are happy?”
There’s a lot more than the quest for happiness going on in this play. Author Philip Roth looms large throughout, echoing themes of identity and assimilation. Familial responsibilities, feminism, generational trauma and infidelity all course through the characters’ monologues, dialogues and actions.
The performances are strong, particularly those of the female leads. Moira Quigley plays Esther’s rebelliousness tempered with a sweet and gentle demeanor. Esther is a deeply-drawn, multi-faceted character, and Quiqley strikes just the right balance, portraying Esther’s range of emotions with confidence and dignity. Likewise, Allison Strickland is well-cast as Sophie. Strickland adeptly conveys her character’s wit and intelligence as she navigates her husband’s midlife crisis while coping with her own angst.
Sarah Goeke (Julia) — a movie star who is corresponding with Abe and with whom Abe is contemplating having an adulteress affair — exudes a delicate remoteness, which we come to understand in greater depth as the show progresses.
Nick Lehane (Schmuli) is convincing as a man utterly devoted to the life into which he was born — but willing to step just outside the lines to listen to classical music. Lehane plays Schmuli with honesty and respect. Jed Resnick as Abe deftly captures the vibe of a Brooklyn-based Jewish writer, self-centered but nonetheless inexorably attached to his family and to his people.
The play offers two windows into Judaism: the ultra-religious, with its walls of confinement, simultaneously safe and stifling; and the secular, portrayed by characters bent on the freedom of shunning their heritage — but unable to entirely. Ziegler doesn’t show a preference. But in her Yiddish refrain — “Ein ba’al ha-nes makir b’niso” — she does question the utility of wandering, in all its meanings. PJC
City Theatre collaborated with Bend the Arc and the University of Pittsburgh’s Jewish studies program through the City Connects program for this production.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.