WATERTOWN — Like a lot of other 19-year-olds, the duo at the center of “Trayf’’ are trying to figure out their place in the world.
Unlike a lot of other 19-year-olds, they are doing so from the inside of a “mitzvah tank’’ as it rolls through the streets of Manhattan in the early 1990s, a sign on its exterior proclaiming its religious outreach mission: “Mitzvahs on the spot for people on the go!’’
Written by Lindsay Joelle and directed at New Repertory Theatre by Celine Rosenthal, the 75-minute “Trayf’’ is small in scale and outwardly slight. A certain wobbliness of tone mars Joelle’s play as it bounces from sitcom-ish banter that flirts with weightlessness to a more serious key. But once “Trayf’’ begins mining that deeper vein of introspection, the play steadies into a satisfyingly resonant examination of faith and friendship — or, more precisely, faith in friendship.
Hasidic Jews from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and friends since childhood, Shmuel (David Picariello) and Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) have always been united by their faith. Now they are collaborating in outreach to non-observant Jews, whom they encourage to perform mitzvahs, or good deeds, from within their “mitzvah tank,’’ an RV that has been converted into a mobile education center and mini-synagogue of sorts.
With their yarmulkes, beards, and black jackets, Shmuel and Zalmy are innocent of the ways of the secular world, epitomized, in Grace Laubacher’s urban-landscape set, by tattered handbills for concerts and albums by Prince, Whitney Houston, New Kids on the Block, Blondie, and Janet Jackson.
How innocent? Well, Shmuel has never spoken with a girl other than his sister, has never heard of “Fiddler on the Roof,’’ and has no idea who Elton John is, asking, when Zalmy mentions him, “Is he Jewish?’’ To Shmuel, the most damning thing you can say to a person — and it eventually gets said in “Trayf’’ — is: “You do not have a Jewish soul.’’ Shmuel feels absolutely no need to venture beyond the tradition in which he was raised, and as far as he is concerned, neither should Zalmy.
But Zalmy has begun to chafe at the strictures of Hasidic Judaism. Increasingly curious about and drawn to the secular realm, with its blue jeans and clubs and, especially, its pop music. Zalmy finds a combination of conduit and role model in Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver), a music producer in his late 20s.
As fate would have it, however, Jonathan is essentially moving in the opposite direction from Zalmy, and doing so at 100 miles an hour. Raised Gentile, Jonathan has just learned that his recently deceased father was Jewish — in fact, the father lived in Germany and escaped the Holocaust — and now the son is determined to wholly immerse himself in the traditions of Judaism. His sudden religious journey, which seems driven by a desire to effect a kind of posthumous reconciliation with his father, drives a wedge between Jonathan and his secular-Jewish girlfriend, Leah (Kimberly Gaughan).
But the fissure “Trayf’’ is primarily concerned with is the one that opens up between ultra-devout Shmuel and Zalmy as the play grapples more directly with what constitutes an authentic Jewish identity and, more broadly, what it means to be Jewish. As that line of dramatic inquiry is joined by the further question of what it means, in the largest sense, to be a friend, “Trayf’’ hits its stride.
Gaughan, who was superb last year as Shakespeare’s daughter Judith in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,’’ delivers another sharply defined performance as Leah, even though she doesn’t have a whole lot of stage time. Hawver is a bit bland as Jonathan, though part of the fault may lie with the playwright: Jonathan feels more like a plot device than a fully developed character.
Picariello, as Shmuel, adeptly handles pretty much everything the play asks him to do. Carrying much of the play’s emotional baggage, he’s first-rate. Swimmer, too, makes a vivid impression, skillfully communicating the conflict raging with Zalmy and making us care about the choice he has to make between the excitement beckoning from a new world and the security residing in an old one. He knows that only one of those worlds will contain Shmuel.
Play by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Celine Rosenthal. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At MainStage Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Nov. 3. Tickets $25-$67, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org