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Review: TRAYF at The Geffen Playhouse

This intimate offering at the Geffen is as fun as it is thoughtful

Review: TRAYF at The Geffen Playhouse

The thing about Lindsay Joelle's Trayf, now playing at The Geffen Playhouse, is that it has really excellent dialogue. In every sense of the word. The opening patter between two Chassidic teenage boys fizzes like a sketch comedy routine and the rhythm carries like a current through a lot of silliness and a lot of seriousness. In 2019, I interviewed two Black, Boston theatre artists about the recent Black-out performances in the city. They highlighted the ways consuming Black stories surrounded by all Black people was different from experiencing the same piece among the more standard, white audiences that usually fill regional theatre houses. And then one of them brought up Trayf, which had just played at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA-- a town just outside of Boston with a largely Jewish population. He spoke about being acutely aware of the ways a Jewish audience reacted differently to this play than he, a non-Jewish attendee, could. I reflected back to ushering at the National Yiddish Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof, recalling the ways audiences were viscerally affected by moments in the show that struck a somber chord for anyone living with Jewish heritage. At that musical, audience members would cry out or gasp in ways that may land as gauche in our contemporary theatres. Trayf at the Geffen brought all of these thoughts to my mind.

There were too many call-outs of familiarity to list. Too many "ahs" as well as "aws" of recognition, but Joelle's artfully crafted call-and-response limbers us up to exclaim and recoil in unity with her characters and with each other. I thought of Lulu Wang's 2019 film The Farewell, which (to my ears) presented a dichotomy between two cultures without arguing in favor of either. I left the cinema feeling like I was in a very comfortable cloud of grey. Trayf, in its steady flow of new conflicts, neither seems to promote nor critique the existence of Chassidic nor secular lifestyles. Without shying away from the specificity of characters she is presenting, Joelle manages to gift us a meditation on friendship, growing up, grief, love, and the customs which dictate our existence. Which should we cling to? Which should we question? As an audience member of goy experience, I recognized so little of the concrete subject matter, yet the musings are so profound as to traipse into the universal.

The ensemble is uniformly strong. Ben Hirschhorn's Schmuel had me ready to convert. He is clearly an actor well-acclimated with the idiosyncrasies of our behavior when we think no one who matters is watching, and the strangeness of his character somehow enhances his viability as a leading man. Garrett Young lends Jonathan an authenticity that seems genuinely period (is 1991 considered a period piece yet?) and Louisa Jacobson's Leah takes total advantage of this intimate space, drawing us in with a soft-spoken-ness that would send Amy Adams running to secure her brand. Ilan Eskenazi oozes warmth as Zalmy, but there are moments when he seems to lean too heavily into performing sweetness or naïveté (totally unnecessary when his dimpled cheeks are already rosy to Hummel-figurine-perfection).

Director Maggie Burrows has a hit on her hands (one masterfully staged without the clunky, literal representation of a Mitzvah tank that was rolled on stage at New Rep in 2019). Tim Mackabee's set design is fabulously understated and plays to great effect (we forgive the odd scale of his central lamppost, I promise!) I hope future productions of this piece pay attention to the creative decisions made here, as the exchange of ideas within this text are really what make it worth producing and worth seeing.

Trayf runs at The Geffen Playhouse until April 10, 2022. More information and tickets can be found here.

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