Review: ‘Trayf’ a World Premiere at Theatre J

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New York, 1991: Zalmy (Tyler Herman) and Shmuly (Josh Adams) are two young men, best friends since childhood, excited to get behind the wheel of their newly acquired RV. What makes them different from most American nineteen-year-olds with a new set of wheels is that they are Lubavitchers, Chabadniks. Their vehicle is a “Mitzvah Tank” and on the side is a sign with a portrait of their spiritual leader, the Alter Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), and the message, “Increase in Goodness and Kindness to Bring Moshiach Now!”

Tyler Herman and Josh Adams in the new comedy Trayf, playing at Theater J. Photo by Theresa Wood.
Tyler Herman and Josh Adams in the new comedy Trayf, playing at Theater J. Photo by Theresa Wood.

The duo, like any friends of that age, banter about the things that are important to them, anxieties about how they are of that age when matchmakers come around arranging possible marriages, and what their missions in life might be. And of course, they argue about music. They get into an argument over whether it is kosher to make a mixtape of one’s favorite songs (Zalmy’s position) or as Shmuly insists, one should listen to albums all the way through, much as an observant Jew reads the Torah over the course of a year, each line part of a larger revelatory structure (of course they only listen to religious music in the Mitzvah Tank.)

Zalmy is excited to speak about how, on a recent trip, he spotted Elton John at a hotel – Shmuly not only doesn’t know who that is, but say he closes his ears to secular music because when one listens to any music, “the soul of the author enters the room.” To him, such music is as trayf to listen to as pork is to eat.

Once they select a neighborhood the pair stand outside the tank, and attempt to engage any likely-looking passersby with the question, “are you Jewish?” But no one will stop to talk to them about the importance of keeping kosher. Zalmy asks his friend if he would rather give a pamphlet to a blind person or Shabbat candles to a woman without hands. It may sound like the cruel grotesque humor of nineteen-year-olds, but it becomes a discourse on Talmudic ethics – and one sees that these friends love how the other thinks. Things proceed in an absurdist manner until something finally happens. A Johnathan (Drew Kopas) a music producer clad in cherry red Doc Marten boots and a New Order t-shirt, and a denim jacket, approaches and asks them, “are you Jewish?”

Jonathan, though raised Catholic, has just discovered that his recently deceased father had hidden the fact that he was a child refugee from the Holocaust. Now he desperately wants to connect with the Jewish roots he never knew he had.  The Chabadniks find themselves in a debate of law versus mysticism. For Shmuly, Jonathan is a goy, because he doesn’t have a Jewish mother, but Zalmy suggests that Jonathan might have a Jewish soul if there is the slightest chance it is true, it is a mitzvah to help Jonathan on his hastily decided upon spiritual journey.

Chabad (an acronym for the Hebrew words for wisdom, understanding, and knowledge) is a sect of Chasidic Judaism founded in 1775. They became known as Lubavitchers after 1821 when the leadership moved to the Polish-Lithuanian town of Lubowicze. The movement relocated to the United States during the Holocaust where it became centered on the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. Its current visibility in the Jewish world is  due to Rabbi Schneerson’s exhortation to his followers to engage in outreach to non-observant Jews world-wide – not necessarily to make them into Chabadniks – but sometimes in smaller ways, as Zalmy and Shmuly do, handing out candles or inviting Jews inside the tank for the wrapping of tefillin (a ritual that has declined in practice outside the Orthodox world) – with the thought that each act, no matter how small, will bring the world closer to the awaited messianic age

The years of research Playwright Lindsay Joelle put into this show have allowed her to render the Lubavitcher world in anthropological detail that ensures the characters feel real. One sees how the community offers a sense of connectedness, and higher purpose, as well as a system of thinking through every possible ethical and emotional dilemma. The attraction it has for someone like Jonathan who is experiencing several degrees of estrangement is palpable. But Joelle also shows Zalmy’s curiousity about what exists beyond his community. He wonders if he can have a foot both in Crown Heights and the secular world of pop culture (including Fiddler on the Roof), as well as how Jonathan’s girlfriend Leah (Madeline Joey Rose), a no longer observant Jew, can be righteously angered as her long-time boyfriend is changing before her eyes. Most importantly, there is a richness in Joelle’s language that gets to the heart of what matters most to every one of her characters.

But Joelle’s words need to inhabit actors. Adams and Herman, as the Chasidim on a mission, invest their characters with youthful excitement and idealism as well as the deep friendship they can have even when they find themselves on opposite sides of an essential argument not just because they have reached different conclusions, but because they realize they have different questions. Kopas traces a fascinating arc as a soul adrift on a sea of questions who then believes he is on course to receive all the answers. Rose, who enters late in the play, has the gravitas to give this comedy some real edge – giving her character a combination of incisive intelligence and real-world experience that challenges the learned zeal of the youthful tzadikim (“righteous ones”).

Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway captures the grimy exuberance of New York circa 1991. Dingy brick walls are tagged with scrawling graffiti and emblazoned with posters for such fashion brands as Nike and DKNY, both local and touring bands like The Clash, A Tribe Called Quest,Tom Tom Club, Social Distortion, Levi and the Rockats, and street artist Shepard Fairey’s “OBEY” stickers with their stylized representations of wrestler André the Giant.

Sound Designer Justin Schmitz has created a mixtape complete with the high pitched whir of the fast forward, splicing the alternate pop-culture universe of Chasidic song with such iconic tracks from Nirvana, A Tribe Called Quest, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and others who will likely evoke nostalgia amongst the Gen-Xers in the audience.

Director Derek Goldman skillfully brings these sonic, visual, and dramatic elements together. This is no small feat, and not every play, even a deserving play like Trayf, especially on its world premiere, receives such treatment.

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

Trayf plays through June 24, 2018, at Theater J at the Edlavitch DCJCC – 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them here.

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