Prayer for the French Republic – Marvelous and Unfortunately, Timely

“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/Before you are six, or seven, or eight/To hate all the people your relatives hate…” (Rodgers and Hammerstein – South Pacific)

Hate is an insidious disease often passed without question from generation to generation. Prayer for the French Republic focuses on members of a Jewish French family (in fact, all people of the faith) facing hostility in 1944 wartime and again 2016. When and where, the piece asks, can one feel safe? What are the trade-offs in an attempt to get peace of mind?  “My play about those people, over there, became a play about me, right here,” writes playwright Joshua Harmon.

Pro Israel Rally (American) Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

February 2022, when this piece was last produced, Hamas had not yet mounted its brutal October 7th attack on the Gaza Strip in so-called response to what Mohammad Deif, head of Hamas’s military wing, called the “desecration” of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and killing hundreds of Palestinians. It was the start of the most significant military escalation in the region since the Yom Kippur War 50 years prior. Israel declared war and launched the counteroffensive, “Operation Swords of Iron.” Statistics are horrific. Around the world people are taking sides. Anti-Semitism, always simmering, once again erupts in multiple acts and attacks across the nation and elsewhere. In New York City hate crimes soared 241 percent.

Pro Palestinian Demonstration (French) Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

France has Europe’s largest Jewish community- about 440,000. More than 1,500 hate crimes were recorded by the Interior Ministry during the weeks following October 7. November 2023, a demonstration of 100,000 including the Prime Minister and two former presidents marched against Anti-Semitism in Paris. Pro-Palestinian marchers mounted their own vociferous objections. According to The Guardian, “After earlier bouts of Anti-Semitic violence, many Jews moved out of the ethnically mixed suburbs that ring the capital. Some left France altogether… Forty of those murdered by Hamas on 7 October were French citizens, and eight French nationals were among the hostages abducted to Gaza.”

Prayer for the French Republic is unfortunately all the more timely.

Left: Nael Nacer and Betsy Aidem (Charles Benhamou and Marcelle Salomon Benhamou) Right: Aria Shahghasemi (Daniel Benhamou)

2016. Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Betsy Aidem), a no-nonsense French psychiatrist and teacher, explains to her young American cousin how they’re distantly related. Molly (Molly Ranson) is sweet and naïve, so unwordly she’s in awe of a croissant. The girl’s parents were against a (college) year in France because of terrorism. (The Charlie Hebdo shooting had just occurred.) She naturally jumps at an invitation to stay in Paris when not matriculating in Nantes. Molly is Jewish, but when asked, says she’s “of Jewish extraction,” offending her hostess. “It’s a disdainful way to refer to yourself.”

Breaking up the welcome, the hostess’s Algerian doctor husband, Charles (Nael Nacer), and son, Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), enter with blood and commotion. Daniel, a teacher, has been attacked in the unsavory neighborhood where he works. His mother is as angry with him as she is upset and fearful. Why does he insist on wearing a kipa (yarmulke). “It’s a target on your back! At least cover it with a baseball cap!” Marcelle pleads.” He’s 26 years old- how do we force him?” Charles counters.

Molly Ranson (Molly) and Francis Benhamou (Elodie Benhamou)

The Benhamou family deal with religion in their own modern fashion. “We’re not strict, but we’re traditional,” Marcelle explains. Shabbat  (lighting candles 18 minutes before sunset once a week) is observed without undue ceremony, but one gets the feeling that, except for High Holidays, only Daniel goes to temple. His irascible, manic depressed sister Elodie (Francis Benhamou) is well versed on Jewish history, volunteering a variation of adamant opinions at the drop of a hat. Charles respects his heritage while bowing to his wife’s limited participation.

At this point, the stage literally revolves to the 1944 home of the Salomon grandparents, Irma (Nancy Robinette), and Adolphe (Daniel Oreskes). When Nazis came for the old couple, someone said, leave them alone they’re elderly. Shockingly the interlopers did just that. The couple spends the war at home in Paris. One of their children escaped to Cuba, two others were arrested. When she won’t listen to reason, Adolphe movingly concocts an optimistic scenario about his sons whereabouts. Acting, especially this and a later monologue by Robinette, is masterful.

Aria Shahghasemi (Daniel Benhamou) and Molly Ranson (Molly)

With intermittent narration by Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Anthony Edwards) we toggle back and forth between the two eras. My single caveat about this play is the character’s unnecessary omnipresence taking us out of narrative. He even interacts with characters which is wrenching.

Charles is stressed and afraid. He wants the family to move to Israel. His wife doesn’t see the need. They’ve created a full life in Paris. Father and son make a reconnaissance visit. Nothing is decided, but Daniel agrees to cover his yarmulke. Elodie delivers a breathless diatribe to Molly in a cafe. “What do you think Egypt is doing with your millions – putting up solar panels?” Writing and acting are terrific. Back home, Passover becomes passionate, raucous. Molly, who’s developed a “friendship” with Daniel, interjects with inadequate understanding. Patrick, a Jew in name only, is aghast at the thought of their leaving, not the least because it leaves care of the elderly Salomon in his hands. A neighborhood incident has made Marcelle afraid.

Nancy Robinette (Irma Salomon)

Back in 1944, much to Adolphe’s astonishment, son Lucien (Ari Brand) and his young son, Pierre (Ethan Haberfield), who will become Marcelle and Patrick’s father, return home having suffered unspeakable horrors. Lucien wants to get on with life and take over the family’s chain of piano stores. (The way instruments are disposed of is cringe inducing.) Pierre clearly suffers from PTSD. (Both actors are excellent.) “What is history,” the narrator asks, “but stuff people tell you to get over already…” Irma presses Lucien about his experience. Response is bone chilling.

A credible resolution is reached without guarantee of change (or safety). Sacrifices abound. Continuity makes one shudder. “…most of all they hate us because they cannot understand how we’re still here,” the narrator ends.

Left to right: Molly Ranson (Molly), Aria Shahghasemi (Daniel), Betsy Aidem (Marcelle Salomon Benhamou), Nael Nacer (Charles Benhamou), Francis Benhamou (Elodie); standing Anthony Edwards (Patrick)

Prayer for the French Republic is gripping; thought provoking, poignant, and entertaining. (Not a polemic.) Playwright Joshua Harmon also injects humor of which characters are wisely unaware. Construction is adroit, both eras articulately well drawn.

Betsy Aidem (whose frustration and intellect roils like the base of a volcano), Frances Benhamou (pivoting from breathless, weaponized harangues to petulant lassitude), and Molly Ranson (an actress who makes innocence and pluck pithy), additionally stand out. All three were in the original production.

Director David Cromer has a sure, realistic hand. Each actor has their own indisputable character. Their lives make us feel like voyeurs. Emotion emerges with great attention to timing and extent.

Scenic design by Takeshi Kata moves quietly and seamlessly between environments with precision. Costumes by Sarah Laux reflect personalities. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is the definition of subtlety.

In 1791, France became the first European country to fully emancipate its Jewish population. The play’s title refers to a prayer said in French synagogues since the early 19th century: “May France enjoy a lasting peace and preserve her glorious rank among the nations.” The congregation replies, “Amen.”

Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon
Directed by David Cromer
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.