BWW Review: New England Premiere of TRAYF: You Don't Have To Be Jewish
Written by Lindsay Joelle, Directed by Celine Rosenthal; Scenic Designer, Grace Laubacher; Costume Designer, Becca Jewett; Lighting Designer, Marcella Barbeau; Sound Designer, Aubrey Dube; Voice & Accent Coach, Lee Nishri-Howitt; Props Manager, Sam Martin; Stage Manager, Jenna Worden
CAST (in alphabetical order): Kimberly Gaughan, Nile Scott Hawver, David Picariello, Ben Swimmer
As the play opens, the darkness on stage is pierced by a pair of headlights attached, as it turns out, to a makeshift truck driven by a pair of young Chasidic men. They are on a mission for their Rebbe, loyal foot soldiers assigned to travel around Manhattan in a Mitzvah Tank, performing good deeds and serving as a mobile educational/outreach center for non-observant and alienated Jews. Playwright Lindsay Joelle introduces us to this unique world in Trayf, now receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown under the direction of Celine Rosenthal.
It is New Rep's mission to "produce plays that speak powerfully to the vital ideas of our time," and it is part of Joelle's mission to give voice to those not usually heard on stage. Other than Fiddler On The Roof, when have you heard Hebrew and Yiddish phrases organically spoken in a play, or seen a story focused on a segment of the population that is recognizable by their facial hair, black hats, and the telltale fringed strands of tallit peeking out beneath their white shirts? Shmuel (David Picariello) and Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) are best friends tasked with spreading the Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) gospel, as it were, while also exploring the boundaries of their faith and friendship. Venturing beyond the confines of their Crown Heights, Brooklyn safe haven, they find opportunity, obstacles, and challenges in the secular world.
Unlike the Amish and Mennonite cultures which allow their youth to have other experiences before choosing to stay in the religion or leave the fold, the Chasidim are raised to abide by the word of the Rebbe and to eschew secular influences. As Shmuel and Zalmy discover on the streets of Manhattan, it is difficult to turn a blind eye to all that they see. Well, more accurately, Zalmy is drawn to secular music, musical theatre, and other forbidden (trayf) pursuits, while Shmuel's faith and commitment are rock solid. As a result, dramatic conflict is established and they respond differently when the Mitzvah Tank attracts Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), a Catholic man who just learned that his recently-deceased father was of Jewish descent. Zalmy is willing to become his teacher, to help him connect with his roots, but Shmuel avers that one is only a Jew if born of a Jewish mother.
Joelle deftly conveys the gravitas of the underlying themes while maintaining a comedic flow, digging nuggets of humor out of the goldmine of the relationship between the two men. Their conversations are authentic, covering their musical likes and dislikes, how they get along with their fathers, and dipping into typical adolescent dating territory (with one very funny exchange about sex). The chemistry between Swimmer and Picariello is topnotch, lending credibility to the fun moments they share, as well as the scenes which are fraught with emotion. Their ability to inhabit their characters is maintained throughout, when they are together and when they interact with Hawver and Kimberly Gaughan (Leah).
Gaughan plays Jonathan's Jewish girlfriend who is disturbed by his evolution and confronts Shmuel. As Leah explains what it's like to have her Gentile boyfriend instructing her about Judaism, Gaughan builds the level of intensity, allowing us to feel her confusion and displeasure. Hawver does a good job of traversing the arc of Jonathan's story, initially a little timid about broaching the subject of studying Judaism, before immersing himself in the process. His awkwardness gives way to comfortable familiarity, eventually blossoming into near zealotry, giving Hawver the opportunity to play highly-charged scenes with both Swimmer and Picariello.
Rosenthal wisely keeps the focus on the relationship between Shmuel and Zalmy by keeping the two actors front and center for most of the play. They are often seated in the truck, playing tapes and having their conversations, or standing by the Mitzvah Tank to approach passersby. The set (Grace Laubacher, scenic design) is minimal, the street scenes represented by an upstage wall plastered with handbills, topped by the silhouette of the Manhattan skyline. Scaffolding stands in for Zalmy's apartment building, and the Mitzvah Tank is made up of scaffolding materials, as well. Costume designer Becca Jewett dresses the friends in the uniform of the Chasidim with perfect detail, including the yarmulkes they wear under their large black hats. The design team is completed with lighting by Marcella Barbeau and sound by Aubrey Dube. Jenna Worden is the stage manager.
In a world where anti-Semitism is again on the rise, where synagogues are targeted by vandals and terrorists, Trayf is a bulwark against the ignorance that contributes to such acts. As the arts so often do, the play finds an entertaining way to educate and connect people, shining a light on a subject that may appear mysterious from the outside, even as the believers proudly wear their faith publicly. The word Mitzvah means a "commandment" of the Torah in Judaism, but also carries with it the connotation of a good deed. Their outreach is done in military fashion, but their tank is used to spread love. See the play and you'll be touched by it.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (David Picariello, Ben Swimmer)