According to Chabad.org, the Yiddish word trayf refers to anything torn and therefore not kosher, such as animals killed in an inhumane way. In Lindsay Joelle’s heartfelt yet amusing coming-of-age drama “TRAYF”—at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre through April 10—souls can also be torn. Four excellent actors, under the nuanced direction of Maggie Burrows, help us feel the toll of being trayf and the even higher cost of becoming whole.
Zalmy (Ilan Eskenazi) and Shmuel (Ben Hirschhorn) are best buddies who happen to grow up orthodox Jewish in Brooklyn. All is well as they drive their “mitzvah tank” through New York helping potentially torn Jews recover their souls. Along the way, they eat snacks and listen to kosher music like klezmer. But what if, for Zalmy, music is not split between trayf and kosher? What if it’s all one in his soul?
Though Zalmy tries to hide it—along with forbidden jeans at the back of in his closet and secret forays roller skating and riding subways—his torn-ness is starting to show to the more innocent Shmuel. Fortunately, a new mitzvah project in the form of Jonathan (Garrett Young) comes along to distract them. Almost an inverse of Zalmy, Jonathan actively wants to become orthodox rather than live in an “empty” way, willing to risk both his job at a music store and his secular Jewish girlfriend (Louisa Jacobson) in the process.
In Tim Mackabee’s minimal set on the circular Audrey Skirball Kenis stage, the “tank” is simply suggested by chairs and a car console with a cassette player (this being 1991). And Zalmy and Shmuel wear orthodox black suits and white shirts with black hats. The stage and costuming are thus dark—but that somehow lets these actors shine, the intimate size of the theatre allowing us to see their every facial expression and movement.
Eskanazi is especially bright as Zalmy, his eyes glittering on a wide face as he expresses his love for music and other secular pursuits to Shmuel. And Hirschhorn is appropriately amenable and unassuming as the naïve Shmuel, who always covers his ears when he hears secular music on the street.
Young brings a surprising and rivetingly intense energy to Jonathan, dealing music tapes to Zalmy like drugs while fully embracing Jewish rituals. And though she has to come in cold for only one scene, Jacobson is believable as Jonathan’s girlfriend Leah confronting Shmuel about his ethics in helping Jonathan convert, subtly revealing her underlying hurt and anger.
These four talented actors carry the production, bringing to life an interesting story with unexpected turns. The only drawback to its minimalism is that the play relies at times on telling rather than showing. One wishes, for instance, that one could at least hear if not see the supposedly sweet singing voice of Zalmy’s father, or hear Zalmy himself sing for that matter. But small props like wine glasses and sound effects (Everett Elton Bradman)—including city traffic and early ‘90s music between scenes—help keep us in the narrative, as does writer Joelle’s ear for Yiddish that she weaves throughout.
Though “TRAYF” is not a big production, it nevertheless explores timeless questions of belonging, identity and purity of spirit in a satisfying way. The ending sees the stage come to life in an amazingly colorful metamorphosis, breaking an emotional tension that builds like a thundercloud until it can only burst. Above all, watching these engaging actors embody their characters—interacting so closely, gracefully and powerfully—conjures the cathartic essence of theatre.
“TRAYF” continues at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles, through April 10, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $39 to $129 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (310) 208-2028 or visiting GeffenPlayhouse.org. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing during the performance are required.