BWW Review: Theater J's Explores Identity and Religion with TRAYF
Surely we have all seen them. Whether driving down K Street or parked in Farragut Square, converted RV trucks advocating for a position, politician, or simply warning us that the "end is near." Even though many of us tend to ignore them, a new RV has just pulled into town that is not only worth of your time, but the cost of admission as well. This RV, dubbed the "Mitzvah Tank" is at the center of Lindsay Joelle's funny, yet thought-provoking new play, Trayf, making a strong world premiere at Theater J.
Contributing to this production, and the play's success, is a well-constructed story, rich characters, and Joelle's ability to balance humor with introspection and religion. Never once does Trayf come off as formulaic, an attribute rarely given to new works. Additionally, at Trayf's core is the search for two universal desires, purpose and identity, and the play does not require one to be overly religious or familiar with Orthodox Judaism to enjoy it.
Zalmy (Tyler Herman) and Shmuel (Josh Adams) are boyhood friends and believers in Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish, Hasidic movement. Together they drive around 1990's New York City in an beat-up RV dubbed the "Mitzvah Tank." Their goal is to perform mitzvahs, or holy acts, to other Jews. Chabad's believe that love is an action, which is why the two drive around hoping to perform Mitzvahs.
For Trayf to work, the relationship between Zalmy and Shmuel must be unquestionable. There is a pacing in Joelle's dialogue between the two characters and Herman and Adams are exceptional. Their chemistry is the anchor of this production and gives Trayf heart and laughs, making the 90 minute runtime fly by.
Like any good friendship there is a ying-yang quality that allows us to see why these two have remained close since childhood. With Adam's Shmuel, he is the more grounded and committed of the two. Even though Herman's Zalmy is outgoing, and the more personable of the duo, we see how he uses Shmuel to remain connected to the Orthodox Jewish community. This is especially evident when Jonathan (Drew Kopas) enters the picture.
A record producer who recently lost his father, Jonathan believes that although he was raised Catholic, he has a Jewish soul. Zalmy, eager to connect with someone in both the music industry and secular world, instantly bonds with him. Their connection leads to the heart of the play's conflict, one where Zalmy craves the secular life Jonathan has, while Jonathan desires the community and traditions that faith has given Zalmy.
This leads to the play's best scene, wonderfully directed by Derek Goldman, and expertly acted by Herman and Kopas. Sitting on the roof of Zalmy's apartment, both he and Jonathan, confide their desires to each other. As they each talk past each other, almost ignoring the other's message, their wanting for a new identity, purpose and fulfillment elevate Trayf beyond just being a "comedy."
Paige's Hathaway's two-tier set has the side profile of a worn-out RV center stage and the roof of Zalmy's apartment above it. The graffiti filled brick walls that line each end of the stage recreate the grittiness of a pre-Rudy Giuliani New York City, making sure that Zalmy and Shmuel's clean cut appearances stand out. Then again, when driving an RV named the Mitzvah Tank, do you really need to worry about standing out?
Adding yet another dimension is the appearance of Jonathan's girlfriend Leah (Madeline Joey Rose), who was raised Jewish, but no longer practices. A Manhattan lawyer, her experience with the faith is the antithesis of Shmuel and Zalmy beliefs. In her solo scene, she confronts Adams' Shmuel about Jonathan's conversion. The result is a powerful exchange between Rose and Adams, and their different approaches to faith.
Joelle's prose really cannot be complimented enough. In an hour and half, she is able to dive into issues such as faith, identity, friendship, and purpose, with a clarity and introspection rarely seen onstage. The character's she has created to explore these issues are relatable, in their relationships to each other and the inner struggles they all face. The result is a wonderfully poignant and funny evening at Theater J with Trayf.
Runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission
Trayf runs thru June 24th at Theater J - 1529 16th Street, NW. For tickets please call (202) 777-3210 or click here.