Prayer for the French Republic – Marvelous
“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 the history of a Jewish French family (in fact, all people of the faith) facing hostility in 1944 wartime and later in 2016. On stage specificity in light of current violent acts of prejudice make it immensely affecting. 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.
Frances Benhamou ( Elodie), Jeff Seymour (Charles), Yair Ben-Dor (Daniel), Betsy Aidem (Marcelle)
Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Betsy Aidem), a no-nonsense French psychiatrist, explains to her American visitor Molly (Molly Ranson) how they’re distantly related. The girl is sweet and naïve, so uncultured she’s in awe of a croissant. Her 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.
Breaking up the welcome, Marcelle’s Algerian doctor husband, Charles (Jeff Seymour), and son, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), 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 (yamaka), “a target on your back.” At least cover it with a baseball cap!
The Benhamou family deal with religion in their own modern fashion. Shabbat (lighting candles eighteen 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 adamant opinions at the drop of a hat, but keeps the faith – if she does, privately. Charles respects his heritage while bowing to his wife’s limited participation.
Nancy Robinette (Irma), Kenneth Tigar (Adolphe)
At this point, the stage literally revolves to the 1944 home of the Salomon grandparents, Irma (Nancy Robinette), and Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar). When Nazis came for the old couple, someone said, leave them alone they’re elderly. Shockingly the interlopers did just that. The couple is spending the war at home in Paris. One of their children escaped, two others were arrested. Moving and illuminating scenes – especially the way Adolphe handles Irma’s hope against all odds and her eventual self-delivered epilogue – are highlights of the play. Acting is masterful.
With intermittent narration by Richard Topol, we toggle back and forth between the two eras. In 2016, Charles wants the family to move to Israel. Marcelle won’t leave the full life she’s created. Despite a reconnaissance visit, Daniel decides to stay in Paris as well. Passover becomes passionate, raucous. Molly, who’s developed a friendship with Daniel, interjects with inadequate understanding and is cut off at the knees by Elodie. Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Richard Topol), is aghast. How are you any safer there and what about our failing father, he rails implying hypocrisy and selfishness. Later, the Benhamou family shares its decision with said father (Pierre Epstein). The scene is great, Epstein viscerally real.
In 1944, much to Adolphe’s astonishment, son Lucien (Ari Brand) and his young son Pierre – who will become Marcelle and Patrick’s father – (Peyton Lusk) return home having suffered unspeakable horrors. Lucien wants to get on with life and take over the family’s chain of piano stores. Pierre clearly suffers from PTSD. “What is history,” the narrator says, “but stuff people tell you to get over already…” Irma presses Lucien about his experience.. Response is bone chilling.
Nancy Robinette (Irma), Kenneth Tigar (Adolphe), Ari Brand (Lucien), Pierre Epstein (Pierre, the father), Peyton Lusk (young Pierre), Richard Topol
A kind of credible resolution is reached without guarantee of change (or safety). Sacrifices are decisive. Continuity makes one shudder. “…most of all they hate us because they cannot understand how we’re still here,” the narrator says.
Prayer for the French Republic is gripping; thought provoking, poignant, and entertaining. (Not a polemic.) Harmon also injects humor of which characters are wisely unaware. Construction is adroit, both eras articulately well drawn.
The outstanding cast doesn’t have a weak link. Older actors as called out are especially marvelous, but Betsy Aidem, Jeff Seymour, Frances Benhamou (whose breathless diatribes are veritably weaponized), and Ari Brand (expressing and subverting wrenching recollection) also stand out.
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 is splendid, moving quietly and seamlessly between distinct environments with evocative aesthetics and precision. A centerpiece piano is deftly employed.
Costumes by Sarah Laux reflect personalities like second skin. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting is the definition of subtlety.
The play’s title refers to a prayer said in French synagogues since the early 19th century.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I presents
Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon
Directed by David Cromer
Through February27, 2022
131 W 55th St (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)