New Rep's "Trayf": When Is a Trifle Kosher?

Ben Swimmer & David Picariello) in "Trayf"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

If you don't know what the word Trayf  means, or think it applies solely to whether or not a particular food preparation is kosher, then this play's not for you. A brief (less than ninety minutes) coming-of-age comedy by promising young playwright Lindsay Joelle, in its New England premiere at New Rep in Watertown, it's a very slight story about a Jewish sect (or perhaps more accurately, a cult) in the 1990's as portrayed by two close 19-year-old friends, Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello). They are on a mission via a “mitzvah tank” (a newly-acquired RV) on a sort of road trip to convince non-practicing Jews to perform acts of love (which they see not as a static concept but as actual activity, namely good works). It's sort of a Brooklyn Book of Mormon without the musical score or the outrageous wit. It deals rather superficially with large issues such as the sacred vs. the secular, what is acceptable vs. what is forgivable, and identity vs. assimilation. There are some one-liners that ring true but a lot more that simply do not, especially if one lacks the necessary religious and cultural background to grasp fully what's transpiring for this dynamic duo.

The relationship of the two “missionaries” (though of course they aren't allowed to proselytize) is tested when they encounter another young man, record producer Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver) who has recently learned of his Jewish roots and wishes to explore them, just as Zalmy is becoming fascinated with the larger world. They also encounter Jonathan's girlfriend Leah (Kimberly Gaughan) in a very short scene that attempts to present some context for his ethnic and spiritual dilemma. All four actors deliver their lines with believable portrayals thanks to the lively direction by Celine Rosenthal, but again, unless one is sufficiently familiar with the cult and culture underlying the play, one might fail to grasp what seems to be much ado about almost nothing. Based on the true world of the Chabad Lubavitcher it's pretty much lost to the audience that might be unfamiliar with those times and in that place.

The playlet succeeds as an amusing conflation of conflicting priorities, rather like an appetizer without a main course. Its success is bolstered by the creative team which includes Scenic Design by Grace Laubacher, Costume Design by Becca Jewett, Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau and Sound Design by Aubrey Dube.

One can certainly expect to encounter more depth and breadth in this playwright's future, but in the meantime, enjoy her tantalizing promise on view through November 3rd.

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