Trayf is in Eye of the Beholder in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello) in New Rep’s ‘Trayf’

By Shelley A. Sackett

Hasidic teenagers Zalmy and Shmuel, the main characters of the New Repertory Theatre’s “Trayf,” are, at face value, typical 1990s adolescents. They love cruising around New York City in their brand-new van, blasting their favorite music and singing along at the top of their lungs. Their good-natured banter, conversational short cuts and puppy-like rapport reveal a chemistry borne of lifelong friendship. They talk about everything, from music to families to the riddle of sex. Any mother would be proud to claim them as her budding mensches.

Yet, on another level, Zalmy and Shmuel are anything but typical teens. They have never left their insular Crown Heights, Brooklyn community and Manhattan’s secular streets, bejeweled and beckoning with the forbidden (trayf), startle them. In their Chabad-Lubavitch (Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement) uniform of black hats, facial hair and black coats, they hardly blend in. The van they drive is a Mitzvah Tank, a makeshift synagogue-on-wheels with an ice cream truck-like banner that reads, “Mitzvahs on the Spot for People on the Go.” The music they adore is Hasidic pop/rock. These two are not trolling for babes. They have but one mission: to inspire Jews to do mitzvahs. “We’re the Rebbe’s foot soldiers going to battle in the most secular city in the world,” Shmuel solemnly declares.

New York based playwright Lindsay Joelle deftly uses this distinctive community and these two friends as the platform from which she launches her exploration of weighty themes such as commitment, identity, loyalty, tolerance and what being Jewish means (and doesn’t mean) in 21st century America. By nimbly plumbing Zalmy and Shmuel’s rich relationship, she keeps “Trayf” light, comedic and fluid while digging deeply beneath the surface.

During Zalmy’s (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel’s (David Picariello) chatty drives into the City, their individualiities surface. Shmuel is scandalized by Times Square; Zalmy is intrigued. Shmuel is devoted, resolved and unquestioning. His is a world of bright lines: black and white, kosher and trayf. Zalmy is more open-minded and daring; he can sense the gray of a possible middle ground, and it draws him in.

Swimmer, Picariello

Joelle carefully places this tinderbox of conflict beneath the teens’ friendship. Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), who approaches the Mitzvah Tank looking for “spiritual belonging,” is the flint that ignites it.

Jonathan is a young man who was raised Catholic. While cleaning out some of his father’s things after his recent death, he came across his birth certificate, showing his father emigrated from Germany and was, in fact, Jewish. Convinced that exploring these Jewish roots will fill the emptiness inside him, he is drawn to the Mitzvah Tank like a drowning man to a life boat.

Zalmy is happy to take Jonathan on as a student, especially after he learns he is a record producer and might be his conduit to secular musical delights. Shmuel is predictably skeptical. “He doesn’t feel like a Jew,” Shmuel says. “Why would anyone pretend to be Jewish?” Zalmy counters.

For the first time in their decades long friendship, Zalmy and Shmuel follow divergent paths. Zalmy takes Jonathan under his wing, bringing him home every week for Shabbos. “You’re so lucky, Zalmy. With your family I feel connected. I feel God,” Jonathan says. Zalmy is just happy to receive some of Jonathan’s secular trayf tapes.

Well into the intermission-less 80-minute production, Jonathan’s Jewish girlfriend Leah Caplan (Kimberly Gaughan) shows up, angry at her goyishe boyfriend’s makeover into a full-blown Chabadnik, hat, beard and all. The granddaughter of survivors, she “knows what it means to be Jewish” and has chosen a Catholic partner on purpose. She has also just courted him through an intense period of mourning and feels betrayed by his sudden change.

Picariello, Kimberly Gaughan as Leah

Leah seems to want more of a therapy session that an intervention from Shmuel, her need more to vent than to be soothed. Shmuel, however, sees a parallel with his relationship with Zalmy and his tone and body language suddenly shift and soften. He tries to comfort and calm her and to get her to see what he is only beginning to embrace and understand. “There is no love, only acts of love,” he tells her, quoting the Rebbe.

From here, the characters’ paths diverge, merge and change course in ways both predictable and surprising. Picariello and Swimmer bring a chemistry and effortlessness to their roles that is helped by Joelle’s character development and dialogue. She is not as successful with Jonathan and Leah. They are two-dimensional, cardboard props, more symbols than flesh and blood. Their role is one of foil rather than relatable people.

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps the play moving and her choice to put Zalmy and Shmuel as front and center as the script allows is a wise one. Grace Laubacher’s set is minimal but effective, the Mitzvah Tank its main focal point. The backdrop of a Manhattan skyline has a Marc Chagall shtetl feel, an acknowledgment to Crown Heights as a bridge between the Chabad’s Eastern European birthplace and its modern digs. Whether intentional or not, it’s a nice touch.

For Joelle, “Trayf” is the culmination of over five years’ research that started with her friendship with a former Chabadnik who shared with her how he had “dipped his toe into the secular world” until he finally broke from his roots and embraced a secular life.

She hopes the audience leaves wondering what each character will do next as they embark on their transformative journeys. “I’m most drawn to Shmuel’s newfound understanding that ‘acts of love’ include giving friends space to change and grow, and that true friendship transcends ideological beliefs,” she said.

A version of this review appeared in the Jewish Journal (jewishjournal.org).

“Trayf”. Written by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Scenic Design: Grace Laubacher. Lighting Design: Marcella Barbeau. Costume Design: Becca Jewett. Sound Design: Aubrey Dube. Stage Manager: Jenna Worden. Produced by New Repertory Theatre in partnership with Jewish Arts Collaborative, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through November 3.

 

Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide’

By Shelley A. Sackett

While most of her 21-year-old colleagues were busy planning their post-college lives, Anita Hollander was undergoing chemo and radiation therapies after her first bout of cancer in her left leg.

When she returned to Carnegie Mellon University for her senior year, she played a cabaret evening of songs by popular singers. A favorite teacher who was in the audience changed the trajectory of her life when she challenged Hollander to use her recent life experience to write and perform her own material instead.

Hollander wrote “The Choice,” about the options one makes when faced with a deadly disease. By the time her cancer reappeared five years later in 1977 – this time necessitating amputation – Hollander was well on her way to creating her show, “Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide to Life’s Catastrophes.”

The solo 15-song cabaret chronicles Hollander’s story, from her initial diagnosis to the post-amputation continuation of her career as a musical theatrical performer. Each song, packed with humor, intelligence, and musicality, describes resources that helped her endure and persist.

“Sense of humor, great imagination, chutzpah, perspective, family, love, children, art – there’s nothing you have to buy or get,” said Hollander by phone from her Manhattan home. “Anyone who sees the show can use these tools to get through difficult times, obstacles, whatever is in front of them.”

“Still Standing” has played at the Kennedy Center, the White House, Off-Broadway, and in theatres around the country.

The New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown will present it from Feb. 9 through March 3 during Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
Since 2009, every February has represented a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. Last February, the Ruderman Family Foundation helped finance a performance of the show at Kerem Shalom, an inclusion congregation in Concord.

Hollander is as much a disability activist as a performer. “My whole career is playing roles that were not necessarily meant to be disabled, but I happened to be playing them with one leg,” she said. As national chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities committee, Hollander keeps a “watchdog scorecard” of disabled people showing up in every form of media. While she thinks film still “woefully” lags behind, she is encouraged by the great strides theater and TV have made over the last 10 years.

Hollander and her three sisters grew up in Cleveland, the daughters of a part-time cantor who organized them into a four-part harmony group that “started singing before we could speak,” she said, doing shows at temple and singing at services. When Hollander married, she joined the Village Temple in New York, where she has been children’s choir director for 23 years.

She and the children collaborate to write songs about holidays and Tikkun Olam (“repair the world”). The kids came up with the idea for “Share the World,” a song that features them saying “welcome” in 20 languages that represent countries where Jews live (it’s available on YouTube).

“Working with the children’s choir has been one of the best things in my life,” she said.

Asked whether she could envision anyone else playing her part in such an intimate autobiographical piece, Hollander said she is writing a new show, “Spectacular Falls,” with the idea that someone else could perform it. However, she added that she is about to do 26 performances in a row of “Still Standing” without an understudy.

“It’s like being out on a wire without a net on one leg,” she said with a laugh.

The Mosesian Center for the Arts is located at 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. For tickets, visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

‘Heartland’ goes straight to the heart

 

 

heartland-2

Dr. Harold Banks (Ken Baltin) and daughter Getee (Caitlin Nasema Cassidy) enjoy each other’s company in Gabriel Jason Dean’s riveting new play, “Heartland.” [Photo by Christopher McKenzie. ]

By Shelley A. Sackett

Dr. Harold Banks has a guilty secret.

The renowned Afghan scholar and retired professor at the University of Nebraska lives in Omaha, the “heartland” of America, with his beloved adopted daughter, Getee. Orphaned in Afghanistan, Getee yearns to return to her birth home both to reconnect with her biological roots and to offer humanitarian aid by teaching children outside Kabul.

While there, she discovers a dusty box of old primary school textbooks from the 1980s with messages that promote violence, hatred, and jihad. Nazrullah (Naz), an Afghan Muslim math teacher she befriends, remembers using the same book as a child. To her horror, Getee learns that Americans authored these books.

To Harold’s deeply buried shame, he was on the CIA-led team from the University of Nebraska that created and imbedded those same propaganda-laden books in Afghanistan as part of a Cold War strategy to counteract the Soviet invasion.

Playwright Gabriel Jason Dean’s riveting and recommended new play, “Heartland,” presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown through Feb. 9, plunges its audience into the personal and political tornado that encircles these three people. The tormented history of the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States is the invisible but pivotal fourth character, and it casts its shadow over every scene.

The play opens as an elderly and ill Harold, wearing boxers, a tropical-themed shirt, a baseball cap and flip flops lays on a chaise dictating semi-comprehensible lecture notes into a mini-recorder. Naz (portrayed with equal parts humor and gravitas by the gifted Shawn K. Jain) shows up on Harold’s doorstep with a message from Getee (ably played by the perky Caitlin Nasema Cassidy). Harold mistakes Naz for the air conditioner repairman, setting in motion a common thread of false impression, mistaken identity, and misunderstanding that runs throughout the 105-minute intermission-less production.

 

heartland-3

Dr. Harold Banks (Ken Baltin) and Nazrullah (Shawn K. Jain) get to know each other. [Photo by Christopher McKenzie]

Through flawlessly interwoven flashbacks and dramatized memories, the linked stories of Getee’s adoption, her nascent interest in Afghanistan, her romantic relationship with Naz, and her ultimate death in a Taliban-led attack unfold beside revelations about Harold’s unwitting complicity in creating a generation of ruthless fighters. Ironically, those children raised on Harold’s textbooks grew up to become the Taliban that killed Getee. With her blood on his hands, Harold is at last forced to face his involvement in a failed foreign policy that reaped great sorrow for so many, including himself.The intimacy of the Mosesian Center for the Arts’ 90-seat BlackBox Theatre and Afsoon Pajoufar’s spare but effective set provides an immersive experience for the audience, which is transported from Kabul to Omaha with the flick of spotlights. When Naz moves in and takes care of Harold, their increasingly honest conversations explore the consequences of misguided US foreign policy while exposing Harold’s emotional rollercoaster ride through love, loss, denial, and pain.

“The man thought he was performing tikkun olam [healing the world] for a country he had come to love. He realizes that while he solved one problem, he created another enormous problem,” said Ken Baltin, the Needham resident whose portrayal of Harold’s inner conflict is spot-on. “How to manage these kinds of circumstances and still live with yourself is one of the main points of the play.”

“Heartland” is Dean’s second play about Afghanistan. His self-described “obsession” with the country began in 2006, when his brother-in-law’s girlfriend and her family were shot down near Kandahar while visiting her father, a civilian contractor.

“It wasn’t until I was holding my sobbing brother-in-law that a conflict in Afghanistan became personal to me,” he said by email. While researching another play set in Afghanistan, he came across several articles about these textbooks. “I knew I wanted to write about them immediately,” he added.
He hopes audiences will leave the play questioning U.S. policy of intervention in foreign countries with a critical eye to examining how Americans address their culpability when those policies fail.

“If we had the courage to face our failures, to say we are wrong, we are sorry, ask for forgiveness, and actually commit to better policy, then that would be the first step to righting these wrongs we seem to have a habit of repeating,” Dean said.

However, the more complicated issue of whether good intentions can trump unforeseen bad consequences is never quite black and white, even when the contrast between objective and outcome is stark. Despite his patriotic and selfless motives, the sympathetic Harold suffers in agony in a gray limbo area between damnation and redemption, trapped in a personal spiritual struggle.

“We made decisions that were in the best interest of the U.S. and Afghanistan,” he explains to Getee when she discovers his collusion. “Hindsight makes it easy to have morality.”

The Mosesian Center for the Arts is located at 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.