Tyler Herman and Josh Adams in Lindsay Joelle’s new comedy “Trayf” at Theater J. (Teresa Wood)
Theater critic

Two 19-year-old guys named Zalmy and Shmuel belt themselves in for a road trip and bicker about tunes, which sounds familiar but is delightfully off-kilter in Lindsay Joelle’s new comedy, “Trayf.” The word typically refers to food that doesn’t conform to Jewish dietary law, but it’s used almost like slang between these bearded young men in drab black suits.

Zalmy and Shmuel are Chabad-Lubavitcher Jews, and what they’re driving is a mitzvah tank through Brooklyn in the 1990s. Shmuel argues against playing a mix tape of secular songs.

“I don’t want it trayfing up the place,” he says.

Joelle’s writing is so light and graceful, and the pals are so endearing, that you quickly settle into the swing of their self-contained world. Directed with a feathery touch by Derek Goldman at Theater J, each of the brisk 90-minute show’s four actors is funny and surprisingly touching, whether rapping as they wrap tefillin or brooding as friendships shift.

Mitzvah tanks are real, and Shmuel (Josh Adams) and Zalmy (Tyler Herman) are on a mission to recruit nonobservant Jews to perform “mitzvahs” — good deeds, holy acts. They wait for potential participants like tramps on the empty streets of Crown Heights until a young, apparently hip record producer named Jonathan (Drew Kopas) takes an interest.

Jonathan isn’t Jewish; Shmuel calls him trayf. But Jonathan recently learned that his father was Jewish. Suddenly, he is almost fanatically drawn to convert.

The grass is always greener: Moving in the opposite direction, Zalmy wants to be more secular, more free to enjoy music and the sensual things suave Jonathan takes for granted.

That’s enough for Joelle to fashion a tidy, consistently smart story that you might expect to climax with the notorious Crown Heights riots. (It doesn’t.) The play’s fissures are intimate, not explosively global, and as played by Adams and Herman, Shmuel and Zalmy tap parts of the buddy spectrum ranging from “Waiting for Godot” (though never so dour) to “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (but never that daft).


Josh Adams, Drew Kopas and Tyler Herman in “Trayf.” (Teresa Wood)

Shmuel is the beatific one, and Adams is wonderful with the young man’s earnestness and sudden bursts of religious lucidity that verge on poetry. As Zalmy, Herman gives a nicely unsettled performance. You sense the force of his hunger to voyage outside the bubble he grew up in.

Kopas does the same thing to a lesser degree as Jonathan, and Madeline Joey Rose is well-nigh perfect in her single-scene appearance with Shmuel as Jonathan’s whip-smart girlfriend. Paige Hathaway supplies a set of graffitied brick walls and not much else; it’s the conversations that carry the play. Joelle’s comedy is easygoing and confident, and her people have soul.

Trayf, by Lindsay Joelle. Directed by Derek Goldman. Costumes, Kelsey Hunt; lights, Harold F. Burgess II; sound design, Justin Schmitz. About 90 minutes. Through June 24 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets: $39-$69. 202-777-3210 or theaterj.org.