WASHINGTON, D.C. – The buddy comedy, "Trayf" is premiering at Theater J in Washington, D.C. through June 24, and whether you know anything about the world of Orthodox Judaism or not, it is well worth the price of admission.
Funny, poignant and universal in its themes of faith, identity, friendship and purpose, the play centers on two 19-year-old Chabad-Lubavitcher Jews, Shmuel and Zalmy, who drive around New York City in a “Mitzvah tank,” recruiting non-observant Jews to perform mitzvahs, or holy acts, to other Jews as an act of love. Their life-long friendship is tested when an aspiring record producer from the secular world challenges the two by becoming friendly with Zalmy, the more adventurous of the two.
Written by Lindsay Joelle and directed by Derek Goldman, Trayf is the Yiddish word for “non-Kosher” or forbidden,” and Joelle was inspired to write the play based on a friend who was torn between the strict world of Orthodox Judaism and the freedom of the secular world.
The play, 90 minutes with no intermission, poignantly describes how different belief systems can test relationships and the choices one makes in life, whether through the Jewish experience or the human condition, in general.
As Zalmy, Tyler Herman is excellent as the friend who sneaks away from his orthodox community at night to roller-skate, dance in discos and listens to rock and roll. Inquisitive and curious, he is the best friend who Shmuel looks to for worldly advice, including how a husband with no sexual experience should approach his wife in bed on their wedding night.
Zalmy is the perfect contrast to Shmuel (an equally excellent Josh Adams) who follows the rules, listens to only religious music, and is ultra-traditional in every sense. Sheltered, he has never been on a date and balks when Jonathan, a zealous young record producer, shows up wanting to study Judaism because Jonathan’s mother is not Jewish. According to Shmuel, Jonathan “cannot have a Jewish soul,” so thereby is trayf.
Drew Kopas plays the hip and worldly Jonathan who only recently found that his late father was Jewish after discovering his father’s birth certificate. He suddenly feels that God is calling him to become a Jew. Despite his freewheeling lifestyle, he is drawn to Zalmy’s world rooted in the community, a sense of family and profound religious identity. Kopas is outstanding as the character who transforms and evolves into a carbon copy of Shmuel, only to be rejected by him at the end.
In the one female role, Madeline Joey Rose smartly plays Jonathan’s girlfriend, Leah, a New York attorney who is no longer a practicing Jew, and who disapproves of Jonathan’s conversion. In a short, but powerful scene, Leah points out the cost of that conversion, particularly in their own relationship.
Trayf moves along briskly, and sound designer Justin Schmitz uses music ranging from Michael Jackson to the Miami Boys Choir to set the mood between scene changes, and Paige Hathaway’s simple set design is built around a replica of a real-life Mitzvah Tank, an RV that blares Jewish music and is used as a mobile educational and outreach center.