Trayf means unfit to be eaten or used, according to Jewish religious laws. Not kosher. Forbidden. Lindsay Joelle’s play “Trayf”, a story of friendship, culture and the ties that bind set in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights Chabad community, had its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse this week. The show is on a thrust stage in the smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, which is the perfect setting for this intimate and enchanting four-person play.
It is 1991 and best friends Shmuel and Zalmy, two 18 year old Chabad Hasidic Jews, are driving a “mitzvah tank” around Manhattan looking to inspire Jews to fulfill a “mitzvah” – a good deed. For those unfamiliar, a mitzvah tank is a bus-like vehicle used by the Orthodox Jewish practitioners of Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidism as a sort of mobile, mini synagogue to reach out to offer blessings, good deeds and teach non-observant or alienated Jews. While they both love their community and way of life, Zalmy has a secret. He loves secular music, definitely a “trayf”, and periodically sneaks a subway ride to be near people outside of their community and goes to a roller disco to soak in the sights and sounds. The two meet Jonathan, a young man seeking to deepen his connection to his newly discovered Jewish roots, who becomes a gateway for Zalmy to futher explore the secular world through mix-tapes and conversation. As Jonathan delves deeper into the religion becoming almost fanatical, drifting further away from his girlfriend, Leah, and his former life, relationships shift for all of them and their loyalties are tested as their worlds collide.
Ilan Eskenazi is endearing as Zalmy and his open, wide-eyed optimism and bursting curiosity make it impossible not to root for him on his journey of discovery. Ben Hirschhorn is the more steadfast, yet equally innocent, Shmuel. He is passionate as a foot soldier of his faith and heartbreaking as he sees his best friend slipping away from him. Eskenazi and Hirschhorn are fantastic together and their intimate conversations inside the tank reveal all the normal angst of 18 year old boys with the added layers of their insular existence. Their investigator, Jonathan, is played by an intense Garrett Young, conveying simultaneously the character’s sense of loss and desperation with a newfound fervor. Louisa Jacobson is moving and persuasive in her one pivotal scene, where she elucidates the demise of her relationship, begging for some clarity in a world she doesn’t understand.
Director Maggie Burrows keeps the action moving and the tension building in this fascinating play that pulls back the curtain on a world most of us know very little about. Yet as we spend time with these characters, we realize what universal desires we all share – family, love, friends who cheer you on and accompany you on your life journey, and a place to belong.
Trayf plays through April 10, 2022 at Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse. 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles. Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission. For Tickets and information visit www.geffenplayhouse.org or call (310) 208-2028.