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October 17, 2018 9:31 am

‘Observance’: A Touching, Relevant Play About Modern Judaism

avatar by Alan Zeitlin

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The team of Observance — Harrison Friedman, Elana Gantman, Lauren Schaffel, Elyssa Nicole Trust, Chris Stahl, Sue Berch, and Scott Klavan. Photo: Alan Zeitlin.

Tracey Goldblum wants her daughter to stop smoking marijuana, practice safe sex, and avoid punching men in the face. Her wishes come true when her child Gabby goes to study in Israel, but a shocking transformation takes place.

Observance, a play written by Elyssa Nicole Trust, and performed as part of Fringe NYC, shows what happens when religious opposites collide. The author stars as Gabby Goldblum, a secular young woman who likes to party. In Israel, she meets her roommate, Shoshana Tauber (Lauren Schaffel), an Orthodox young woman who likes to study.

At first, it seems like a match made in hell. Shoshana is almost afraid of Gabby, who professes a love of bacon and has smuggled pot cookies into the Holy Land. Gabby is mystified that Lauren has a boyfriend whom she can’t touch, due to the religious prohibition known as shomer negiah. The playbill has a glossary explaining 33 terms, but many audience members won’t need it.

Gabby soon becomes interested in studying Torah, learning the laws of kashrut, and keeping Shabbat, while Shoshana becomes interested in hearing about stories that are not so kosher.

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Trust’s writing showcases authentic dialogue and provides palpable tension. In her acting, she nails the role of a young woman who is passionate about love and life, and struggles to balance her newfound adherence to strict laws with the needs of her parents and her boyfriend, who comes to visit, and is in for a surprise.

Chris Stahl is masterful as her boyfriend, Noah. After a passionate kissing scene early on, the audience can feel for him later when he thinks Gabby’s no-touching rule is a way to get him to propose.

The play gets its gusto from the chemistry between Trust and Schaffel, who brilliantly balances an initial rigidity with an openness to hear the feelings of her new friend.

When Tracey visits her daughter in Israel, she worries that Gabby has been brainwashed by her roommate, and sees it as a form of betrayal. Sadly there are religious parents who cast out their children for becoming secular, as well as secular parents who cast out their children for becoming religious. They should all see this play.

In an emotional moment, we learn that Gabby’s incident of punching the aforementioned man in the face was triggered by his joke about a disease that afflicted her sister.

The cast members navigate moments of levity and comedy, and those of drama and ferocity. Each character has a battle. Gabby wants to protect her newfound identity and doesn’t want it to be a phase that she will toss away when she returns home. Tracey, played right on the money by an over-the top Sue Berch, doesn’t want to lose her daughter. Jim, played by a sure-handed Scott Klavan, tries to be the good cop to his wife’s bad cop, but is also uncomfortable with his daughter’s new lifestyle.

Harrison Friedman brings warmth as Rabbi Shalom Abrams, while Elana Gantman, who plays his wife Yael, does a fine job as a woman who wants to be a role model but also sees the need for flexibility. Overall, the direction of Susanna Wolk makes Gabby’s transition more seamless than you’d expect in a 90-minute show.

Trust said that the catalyst for the play was her own experience six years ago in Israel, when her friends started to become more religious.

“It was something I was really intrigued by, but could not commit to,” Trust said in a post-performance interview. “This is kind of my imagining of what might have happened.”

Observance is a play that could have easily been half-baked, with characters that are caricatures. Instead, it is a show that hits its target of demonstrating that in the journey to find out who you are, you also find out who your loved ones are. At a time when we debate who is really “a Jew,” this is a timely and powerful play that reminds us we don’t have to be who we are expected to be. We can be who we want to be.

The remaining performances are at Thursday 10/18 at 7pm, and Sunday, 10/21 at 9:15pm. Tickets can be found here.

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