Finally, you hope, Katie Holmes has the chance to shake off the ghost of Dawson’s Creek’s Joey Potter, playing the role of a Hollywood movie star off-Broadway. Fun! Yes, she has starred in many other things since playing Capeside’s high-achieving, be-dimpled serial heartbreaker, but nothing has really shifted public perception of Holmes, apart from her other major headlining life event—her puzzling marriage to Tom Cruise.
So, you think before entering the theater, in Anna Ziegler’s play The Wanderers (Roundabout/Laura Pels, until April 2), her character of Julia Cheever—a name strangely summoning up both Julia Roberts and John Cheever—might be brash, diva-y, or commanding, or mysterious, or flawed, or bossy, or bitchy and funny and vain, or cruel and outrageous. Or it might show us some fresh, perception-shifting side of Holmes. No, sorry, no shakes. But good news: her knitwear is spectacular.
The Wanderers, a meandering play about a couple of Brooklyn writers whining about themselves and their marriage, alongside a historical plot about one of the couple’s Orthodox Jewish parents’ own marital breakdown, spends a lot of time—just as Dawson’s Creek did—talking, talking, talking to no discernible end. It yolks two stories together in the hope that with repeated symbols and words (snow, “liebling”) echoing across the years that the threads between past and present will thrum with significance and depth. They do not.
However, the play has a very big twist, which will go unrevealed here that is both shocking in the moment, and then shockingly badly followed up on. A pow followed by a pffft.
Holmes plays Julia, in a solidly neutral, unreadable register, dressed for much of the play all in white, in that fantastic knitwear (costume design is by David Israel Reynoso). The good thing (and look away now if you don’t want it ruined) is that she has the best lines of the play. This blink/miss it moment, which happens out of nowhere, made this critic giggle/snort, because it does briefly consign Joey Potter to history, and Julia does briefly flare into an interesting character.
It occurs when, as one half of the Brooklyn couple in 2015-2017, an allegedly award-winning writer called Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is, he thinks, surreptitiously striking up an email relationship with Julia. We learn he has improbably won “a Pulitzer and two National Book Awards before turning 30,” which does not correspond to the clichés and gnawingly embarrassing hero worship he indulges in.
This critic yelped internally when Abe told Julia, “I’m just so enjoying becoming your friend. I can’t tell you what your movies have done for me. All of them, but especially the ones when I was a teenager. Those were formative. You were this girl my age who was so smart but also beautiful but also attainable. You made things seem…possible.”
His wife Sophie (Sarah Cooper), in a more down-home cardigan than Holmes’ lux ensemble, seems forbearing about this exchange of messages, without appearing to know how deep, flirty and confessional the exchanges have become. One day Abe and Julia are mulling what makes them cheerful—Abe ventures snow days, “Mozart’s overture to the Marriage of Figaro. Anything by Art Garfunkel—I’m a total Garfunkel guy—or Jay-Z. I love Jay-Z.”
Julia crisply responds: “How about when a Cate Blanchett movie bombs?”
“Has that ever happened?” asks Abe.
“But think of how it would feel if it did,” Julia says. Holmes delivers it with a perfect, dry pinchiness.
Sadly, it’s only one line and one moment. Otherwise, she and Abe ramble around each other, she with a sing-songy voice to the audience, he with a growingly weird and creepy bluster. The way Abe is written doesn’t seem to be geared to making him appear the grating doofus that transmits to the audience. Sophie recedes and recedes—necessarily, as it turns out—and then when she should not recede at the climax of the play, she is given a far too muted slice of the action.
As a character, Sophie—who is biracial, Caucasian/Jewish and Black—feels stuck in Abe’s description of her: “She published this incredible novel a decade ago but it got dismal reviews and then disappeared, which was disheartening for her, especially in light of my success…See, there is a small, or perhaps not so small, way in which my wife hates me, but also can’t, and it tortures her.” He is allowed to be Mr. Writer, she does the childcare, and understandably feels very trapped, unseen, and occasionally insulted by strangers because of her biracial identity.
“It’s horrible, Julia. Life is short, and full of illusion.”
— Abe, in ‘The Wanderers’
There is more heart and spark in the other half of the play, starring Lucy Freyer as Esther, a Hasidic Jew married to Schmuli played by Dave Klasko. They are Abe’s parents, and we see them between 1973 and 1982, living both the life they lived, and the life he imagines for them—including the fate of his father—elucidating the distance between reality and a writer’s imagination and son’s heartbreak. Esther wants to leave their strictly patrolled, imprisoning (for her as a woman) existence behind. Schmuli does not want her to leave, but wonders if there is a middle way to stick to community diktats, while she feeling a little freer.
Identity emerges as a malleable theme in The Wanderers, both around Julia, and also with Abe wondering how entwined his and Sophie’s lives are having grown up together. Then there are the risks his mother faced by leaving the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg behind. Meeting Julia, this new, alluring “force of nature” online, makes Abe question his marriage. “It’s horrible, Julia. Life is short, and full of illusion. There is no order to be made from madness. I haven’t said it before but I’m saying it now…I want to see you,” he begs her. A Pulitzer? Two National Book Awards? Seriously?
And then the big twist and end. It is notable that after the twist Julia appears to us in sharply tailored black, and appears to be potentially much more fun and engaging than she has appeared throughout—a frustrating glimpse of a spikier character that might have been. The twist of the play ultimately undermines both Holmes and the character she plays.
There are two stories and strains in The Wanderers—one melodramatic and soapy, and one much more tender and personal. They don’t marry coherently. But Katie Holmes all-too-briefly jettisons Joey Potter, and her cardigans win the night.