The great majority of American Jews view the cloistered world of Chasidim as mysterious, even exotic. Playwright Lindsay Joelle’s world premiere “Trayf” draws back the curtains on the Lubavitch sect, suggesting that beneath their men’s dark suits and overgrown beards, there’s much to appreciate.
They’re not so dissimilar from the rest of us, she suggests, aside from rigid laws by which they live — stringent kashrut observance is just one. But “Trayf” has little to do with what’s to eat, and much to do with how to live — and believe. The 90-minute, intermission-less play running through June 24 feels especially apropros for Theater J and under the careful direction of Derek Goldman. No other local theater could get the details just right for this warm-hearted drama.
Set in the early 1990s on shabby graffiti-splattered streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan, “Trayf” focuses on the fraying but enduring friendship of two Talmud students who have signed on to do mitzvot: namely recruit Jews to perform a commandment like lighting Shabbat candles for women or wrapping tefillin for men.
For Zalmy and Schmuely, their job is literally God’s work. Driving a Mitzvah Tank, a tricked up old camper, around New York, they must entice lapsed Jews back into the fold. But they’re not very good at it, spending more time gabbing about chasidic pop songs, mix tapes versus albums and matchmaker-initiated dates. Jonathan, their lone “recruit” after days of cold, asks “Are you Jewish?” to strangers, has a tenuous link to Judaism and disrupts the equilibrium between Zalmy and Schmuely. For in many a friendship, two’s company, three’s a crowd.
Fine acting by Josh Adams as Shmuely, with his sparse auburn beard (credit to Gregory Bazemore for the ungroomed chasidic beard design), and Tyler Herman as Zalmy bring these black-and-white characters into living color.
In oversize aviators, Adams’ Shmuely projects a childlike naiveté and a heavy Yeshivish accent, while Herman’s Zalmy, sitting shotgun, yearns for a taste of the forbidden. Costumer Kelsey Hunt gets their loose-fitting black suits and crisp, wide-brimmed fedoras right, down to the detail of the correct knots on the tzitzit — ritual fringes — hanging out of their pant waists. Scenic designer Paige Hathaway provides the right amount of shabby early-‘90s grit to the New York streetscape and the tank.
Shmuely, the good boy, follows the letter of the law and avoids anything secular, even the latest Top 40 music – heard here in great ‘90s hits culled by sound designer Justin Schmitz. Best friend, Zalmy longs for life beyond insular Crown Heights.
When their recruit disrupts their symbiotic relationship, an inescapable change looms.
Often sweetly funny, the talented cast of “Trayf” probes issues of abiding belief and piety. Shmuely, a reverent soldier in the rebbe’s army, is ready to spread light to Jews living in a world of secular darkness. Zalmy has questions. He’s clearly on a path away from his tightly knit and often unforgiving community.
Those who follow the Orthodox mores call his desire to depart from the stringencies of Jewish observance going “off the derech” or “off the path.” Most often family and friends will cut ties.
Playwright Joelle reveals some deeply poetic musings on God drawn from Lubavitch writings. The friends speak of lost Jewish souls and the holiness of redeeming them and how love is an action verb, rather than a noun. “Do the action,” Shmuely says, and “the love will come.”
At the play’s core, the conflict between belief and community feels just right for these uncertain times.
The essential Jewish question of belief in God is one that rabbis across denominations must hear frequently. So many of our Jewish plays deal with family conflict, relationships, cultural and political issues and our people’s troubled history, but few wrestle with the question of whether God exists and how God manifests in contemporary lives. In “Trayf” Joelle gives voice to both the doubters and the believers, the heretics and the pious, with gentle sagacity.
“Trayf,” by Lindsay Joelle, through June 24, Theater J, Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington; tickets $30-$69; call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.