With teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel singing at the top of their lungs to their favorite music in their brand new van, it seems like nothing could break the bond between best friends. But this is a pivotal moment in the friendship of two Hasidic Jewish teenagers. In “Trayf,” playwright Lindsay Joelle explores how love and loyalty between these friends is tested as childhood bonds face the world head on. It’s a refreshing and wholesome depiction that only falters under characters that have yet to find their footing.
“Trayf,” which is Yiddish for “non-kosher,” premiered last year at Theatre J in D.C. and is now in production at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. Joelle is a New York-based playwright who focuses on smaller communities across America hoping to elevate underrepresented voices. “Trayf” was inspired by her close friend who grew up in a Hasidic community and his hidden curiosity for secular culture. She describes the play as a tribute to his bravery in pursuing a secular life.
Joelle has fleshed out Zalmy and Shmuel’s friendship with such specificity and balance; Zalmy is curious and a little rebellious, Shmuel is dependable and big-hearted. The two boys have been peas in a pod since childhood. Zalmy, played by a wide-eyed and honest Ben Swimmer and Shmuel played by a loving and warm David Picariello bring a charming chemistry to their devoted friendship. However, Joelle’s secondary characters, Jonathan and his girlfriend Leah, lack the dimension that she’s brought to Zalmy and Shmuel.
The teenagers venture out into Manhattan from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in their new "Mitzvah Tank," basically a mobile synagogue, on a mission to inspire Jews to fulfill a mitzvah (a good deed) — a practice established in 1974 to inspire Jews to reject assimilation in America and reconnect with their spirituality. The boys are pumped because driving the tank means listening to Hasidic pop/rock on cassette tapes (the year is 1991), interacting with strangers, and having a little more independence.
The scenes with just the two of them fly as they discuss everything from their favorite Hasidic music groups, first dates arranged by a matchmaker, to the mysterious world of sex that they’ve been shielded from. The rapport was delightful to watch and I loved where the play was going.
But it loses some of its dimension as the other characters come into play. Jonathan, played by Nile Scott Hawver, approaches the Mitzvah Tank in hopes of exploring his paternal ties to Judaism after his father died. For Zalmy, Jonathan is a window into secular music and culture, all things that Shmuel rejects in his devotion to Hasidism.
It’s clear that Jonathan’s role is meant to test the boys’ friendship, but I was left with so many questions as to who Jonathan is and whether or not I was supposed to be intrigued by his quest for spiritual belonging. He had a general apathy toward Zalmy’s inquiries about making new friends and girlfriends. “You just run into people,” he says with indifference, a trait that rarely translates on stage. His vagueness made it difficult for me to invest in him and his role as the test of the boys’ friendship. I wanted a deeper, more dynamic look into Jonathan’s intentions.
Jonathan’s girlfriend Leah, played by Kimberly Gaughan, also sits on the surface. She comes in for one scene about three-fourths of the way in to the 80-minute play to confront Shmuel about her boyfriend’s newfound way of life. She’s humiliated by his obsession with trying to teach her what it means to be Jewish even though she’s Jewish herself and frustrated that she hasn’t been given the credit she deserves for caring for him while he was mourning. But the scene doesn’t quite land because Leah’s point of view is muddled by disjointed tangents, so it takes us a while to figure out what she really wants from Shmuel. I’m not sure if we ever really get there.
However, the same scene between Leah and Shmuel contains a gem of a moment when Shmuel shares with Leah that his community has a saying: “There is no love, only acts of love.” Picariello describes its meaning with a tenderness, making this moment one of the most resonant in the play. He breaks from his established quirky and awkward energy to reveal a softer side of Shmuel, touched by his father’s weekly ritual of bringing flowers to his mother.
Although Zalmy and Shmuel’s relationship is challenged in their coming-of-age search for identity and purpose, they decide to practice love for one another, no matter what, to nurture their evolving friendship.
New plays like this excite me even if there is still development that needs to happen. That’s the way new plays work — they’re living documents. Joelle has an ear for comedic rhythm. There is something very '90s-after-school-program — maybe "Saved by the Bell" — about the flow of the dialogue. In a lively debate about mixtapes versus albums, Zalmy and Shmuel set each other up for punchlines so effortlessly that the audience reacted like a well-timed laugh track. Little details of physical comedy like their bodies swaying in unison as the van turned an imaginary corner complemented Joelle’s buoyant tone.
And with humor often comes an opportunity for understanding. I will always be a champion of honest and genuine exploration of diverse cultures and experiences on stage with the intention of revealing different aspects of humanity. I had never seen a play about Hasidic Jews before (not that these plays don’t exist), aside from “Fiddler on the Roof,” which Zalmy sneaks out of the house to see on Broadway. When we broaden the communities we portray on stage, we choose to acknowledge our shared humanity and appreciate what makes us unique. Not only do audiences crave seeing theater that more fully represents the world we live in, but we need to see it for the sake of exercising and strengthening our compassion. Shmuel says it best, “Love is an action... It comes only by doing.”
"Trayf" is at New Repertory Theatre through Nov. 3.