October 17, 2019

in Plays

Play (2018)
by Lindsay Joelle
Directed by Celine Rosenthal
A New England Premiere

New Repertory Theater
Mosesian Center for the Arts
Watertown, MA
October 12 – November 3, 2019

With David Picariello (Shmuel), Ben Swimmer (Zalmy), Nile Scott Hawver (Jonathan), Kimberly Gaughan (Leah)

Ben Swimmer as Zalmy, David Picariello as Shmuel in 'Trayf'

Ben Swimmer as Zalmy
David Picariello as Shmuel
in “Trayf”
Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures
Courtesy of New Repertory Theater

A comedy about two young Hasidic Jewish guys in New York.

Shmuel (David Picariello) and his buddy Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) are two young Hasidic guys who drive a Mitzvah-mobile around town, obviously spending a lot of time together while they, as emissaries of the Lubavitcher Hasidic community, try to bring religious practice to lesser observant Jews. Their conversations range widely, extending to the attractions of secular culture, and when Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), a Jew of a different stripe, shows up on the scene, it helps to bring out some of the subliminal attractions to the wider culture even further.

This quite lighthearted approach to the challenges of being a not only very Orthodox but quite socially isolated Jew is a kind of easy introduction to the problem of cultural boundaries. Its buddy-talk setup gives a gentle kind of appeal to the issue while at the same time softens it in a way that removes much of the subtlety that such problems bring with them. It is a kind of easy intro to this general arena but one that only very superficially probes its significant issues.

Author Lindsay Joelle states in the program notes that the play is a tribute to a friend of hers who had made transition out of the Hasidic community. The narrative certainly bolsters that general disposition and gives insight into the germination of such a transition. Touching ever so lightly on the matters at hand, it glimpses that attraction and moment of departure but leaves the heavier work of thinking through the implications to the imagination.

For one who has seen the superb Netflix series Shtisel (2013-2016) about an Ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, or the wonderful independent film Menashe (2017) about an Orthodox widower in New York who must face personal judgments and challenges from his community, the richer and deeper subtleties of these issues are apparent. Trayf provides a heads up on these issues, but does so in a much more inadvertent, offhand way that tries to maintain its comedic tone while nodding to the deeper implicit stresses of its central dilemma.

The two main characters have a sweet charm about them, and David Picariello as Shmuel and Ben Swimmer as Zalmy certainly rise to the occasion in trying to convey the down-to-earthness of their characters and the relation between them. They also do a quite good job of transmitting, mainly through their quite believable accents, authentic character traits.

In the supporting roles, Nile Scott Hawver as Jonathan, the interested secular Jewish kid who tries on the black hat of the Hasidim, and Kimberly Gaughan as Leah, his girlfriend, do a reasonable job of filling out the scene. The narrative of this short play does not quite support the dramatic extensions their roles entail, but their contributions add nicely to the quality nonetheless.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

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