February 20, 2023
"Trayf" is a Yiddish word meaning "food not in accordance with Jewish dietary law." In the play Trayf, currently playing at Six Points Theater, the word refers not just to food, but to anything not following the strict Orthodox laws that the characters subscribe to (e.g., secular music, mixed gender swimming, musicals!). But really, the play is about friendship, and what happens when two friends begin to grow beyond their childhood beliefs and want different things. Can they still maintain that friendship when their lives begin to move in different directions? The 90-minute play is funny and touching, and explores ideas of faith, family, and adhering to ancient traditions vs. living in the modern world. See it at the Highland Park Community Center through March 12.
It's 1991, and Shmuel and Zalmy are Orthodox Jewish teens living in Brooklyn. They rent a truck to use as a "mitzvah tank," providing "mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go." A sort of traveling good deeds. They park their truck in some neighborhood, ask strangers if they're Jewish, then hand out candles and pamphlets, or discuss issues of faith. They run into Jonathan, who was raised Catholic but recently found out that his father, who died suddenly, escaped the Holocaust as a young child and was adopted by a non-Jewish family in America. Grieving and feeling his world turned upside down, Jonathan decides he wants to convert to not just Judaism, but Orthodox Judaism, to reclaim his lost heritage. At first, Shmuel resists because traditionally Jewishness is passed through the mother, but Zalmy recognizes something in Jonathan and agrees to talk with him and invite him spend Sabbath with his family. He's also fascinated by the outside world, and asks Jonathan questions about music and girls. But even as Zalmy is enamored of the outside world, Jonathan begins to reject it, which causes problems with his (non-practicing) Jewish girlfriend. Jonathan comes between Shmuel and Zalmy, and causes them to rethink their world view and where they want to go in the future.
Soren Thayne Miller and Charlie Peterson
photo by Sarah Whiting
Jennie Ward directs the strong four-person cast, and strikes a nice balance between humor and the heavier topics. High school students Charlie Peterson and Soren Thayne Miller are so great as the conservative Shmuel and curious Zalmy, respectively. The weight of this story rests squarely on their young shoulders, and they're totally up to the task, both confident, self-possessed, and so present on stage, with a believable friendship. Paul LaNave conveys all of Jonathan's loss and longing, his excitement for his new interest covering a great hurt. Rounding out the cast is Marci Lucht, who only appears in one scene as Jonathan's girlfriend, but leaves a lasting impression.
Michael Hoover has once again designed a crisp, clean-lined set. City buildings converge towards the center in a perception trick, with an adorable yellow rental truck constructed of wood dominating the stage. The boys are dressed in traditional black suits and hats, while Jonathan's clothing subtly changes from '90s record store employee to a more conservative look emulating his new friends (costume design by Eleanor Schanilec). The 1991 setting comes into play when the characters exchange mix tapes that they play on their walkman; it's fun to watch these Gen Z kids handle a cassette tape that they've probably never seen before in their lives.
Zalmy and Shmuel (Soren Thayne Miller and Charlie Peterson) with Jonathan (Paul LaNave) photo by Sarah Whiting
Like all of Six Points' work, Trayf explores issues of Jewish culture, identity, and faith, in a respectful yet entertaining way, with common universal themes that are relatable even to goys. Teenage boys are kind of the same in any culture, unsure of themselves, curious about the world, longing for something more, always thinking about snacks. Trayf tells the story of these specific boys growing up in a very specific world in a way that showcases their humanity and makes us follow and relate to their journey.