Theater Review: “Trayf” — By the Book of Numbers

By Bill Marx

Evaluated as an empathy workout, Trayf never asks us to break a sweat.

Trayf by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Staged by the New Repertory Theatre in the MainStage Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA, through November 3.

(l to r) Nile Scott Hawver, Ben Swimmer, and David Picariello in the New Rep production of “Trayf.” Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures.

In the New Rep’s program notes, Trayf director Celine Rosenthal writes that working on this production made her “appreciate the way that theatre can help us flex our empathy muscles.” (Dramatist Lindsay Joelle is also quoted as saying that she wants to do work that “exercises our empathy muscles.”) Of course, flexing is one thing and building is another. Our theaters insist they are flexing like crazy — going for the gold at an “empathy” bodybuilding competition — but our muscles don’t seem to be working all that hard. Just getting the beefcake moving (into the seats?) seems to be enough. But it isn’t, and as time goes by the claim rings increasingly hollow. The fact is, without challenge or strain, empathy muscles can become pretty damn flabby — in stage artists as well as performers. Somebody needs to bring out the heavyweight equipment — the theatrical equivalent of Peloton.

Evaluated as an empathy workout, Trayf never asks us to break a sweat. The script hews to a fairly standard formula about the fragility of friendship, complicated (a bit) by a clash between the secular and the nonsecular. It is the early ’90s, and two young (and innocent) Chasidic men, Zalmy and Shmuel, spend their days offering to do good deeds for the Jews they encounter as they cruise around New York City in a “Mitvzah Truck.” They are longtime Crown Height buddies and share cute if naive questions about sex and masculinity. But they have revealingly opposing tastes in music. Zalmy yearns for forbidden secular tunes composed by the likes of Elton John; Shmuel refuses to listen to anything but sanctified melodies, whatever is deemed proper ear candy by the Rebbe.

Into this neatly balanced arrangement wanders Jonathan, a guy who thought he was Catholic until he was shocked to discover, after his father’s recent death, that dad had been a Jew who had escaped the Holocaust. Discontented for an unaccountable reason — at one point he announces he is “empty” — Jonathan is attracted to Judaism. (Just why he prefers Chasidism to Reform is never made clear.) Jonathan is connected to the music industry, so Zalmy immediately takes on the job of converting him. Shmuel is understandably skeptical about Zalmy’s enthusiasm and he is, of course, right. As Jonathan moves toward becoming a Chasidic Jew, Zalmy moves away from the faith and toward the secular music he loves, which leaves Shmuel heartbroken.

Joelle is so concerned with keeping everything genially warm and funny that nothing much appears to be at stake. The relationship between Zalmy and Shmuel is not passionate but pumped-up and jokey — at times they come off as junior league comedians desperately trying to generate laughs. There is mild amusement along the way. Zalmy rebels against tradition by going to see Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway! Shmuel wonders why a Jew is up on the roof. Jonathan’s pain is as superficial as his robotic acceptance of Zalmy’s Chasidism. Shmuel talks about his sect’s generous “acts of love” but the guys’ friendship is sitcom-ready and their faith is treated with a breezy triviality. The innocuous mood is tested by the potentially troublesome appearance of Jonathan’s lover, Leah, a woman from a Jewish background who no longer believes. She is puzzled that her boyfriend has been drifting away from her, but in this male-dominated play she is more plot device than character, there to reinforce the theme of betrayal. She disappears off stage after one scene; it would create waves if she fought for her man by confronting him, or challenged those who are encouraging his sudden conversion.

Rosenthal’s direction moves mechanically along, overly careful to maintain an affable, playful tone. The performers are pleasant but a bit irritating as well. Nile Scott Hawver never gives us an inkling of what is driving Jonathan, while David Picariello as Shmuel and Ben Swimmer as Zalmy don’t do much to show us how the experience of growing apart changes their characters, that there is a price to be paid for following your desires, to forsake what you were told was sacred. Or to give up a comfortable illusion of homogeneity. Kimberly Gaughan’s Leah shows up and provides the dramatic equivalent of stamping your feet.

Finally, in the honorable spirit of Jewish argument, I can’t but wonder what all the fuss in Trayf is about. This ordinary situation is far from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Isn’t growing up the way of the world? What exactly are Shmuel and Zalmy losing when they ditch the Mitzvah Truck? Eccles 11:3 (in James L. Kugel’s translation) tells us “If a tree falls to the south or to the north, wherever it falls, there it is.” We are blown round and about by the winds of change — but where we land is inevitable.

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Ellen on October 23, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    I think the crux of the play is when Zalmy and Shmuel differ over how to listen to an album. One believes in listening to the songs in order, the way the composer or band intended, the other likes to listen to songs randomly. One says that listening to songs randomly is like reading the Torah out of order. It’s literally a play about choice–either going by the book (“keeping kosher”) versus breaking out of tradition (“eating trayf”). The playwright seems to be making a case that both choices work, if that’s what you believe.

    • Bill Marx on October 23, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Sounds like a sensible reading to me — particularly your suggestion that the playwright believes that either choice works. My point is that kind of safe equanimity does not generate powerful, compelling, or moving theater.

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