Glenda Frank in New York
After a banner run Off Broadway and 2022 Drama Desk awards for outstanding play as well as featured actor and lighting design categories, Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon has reopened for a Broadway run at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Molly Ranson, Nael Nacer, Aria Shahghasemi.
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel.
The play is now sharper, the performances more polished and the new set by Takeshi Kata allows the intertwined family stories to flow more easily. But times have changed: the October 7 confrontation between Israel and Hamas has shifted the world’s attention from Hamas’s attack on Israelis to the suffering in Gaza, and the play’s lone voice questioning Israeli politics is the least developed by the playwright.
Prayer for the French Republic is not about Israel – its topic is European antisemitism, the failure of a powerful nation to protect its citizens. It brings us the stories of two generations of a family, grandparents living through World War II and their offspring in 2016-17. Two stories, one choice: “the suitcase or the coffin.” “The only reason [Jews are] still on this planet is because we learned to get out of dangerous situations before they got the better of us,” Charles tells the family. “Why are we not safe here?”
The grandparents were extraordinarily lucky. When a Parisian neighbour told the Nazis to leave them alone because they were old, they did, and Irma and Adolphe Salomon remained safe in their apartment. Their daughter and her family escaped to Cuba, and one of the two sons survived the camps although his young daughters and wife perished. Their surviving grandson, Pierre, later changed his name to Patrick, married a Catholic and did not raise his daughters in the Jewish tradition.
Patrick is the narrator, haunted not so much by his time in the concentration camps as by the history of Jewish persecution, the live immolations and torture down the centuries in France. The Salomon family traces its French lineage back a thousand years. They created an international reputation for the quality of the pianos they sold and manufactured for over 150 years.
Early in the play, Daniel Benhamou (Aria Shahghasemi), the great grandson of Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolphe (Daniel Oreskes), returns home all bloody. He has been beaten up again because he is wearing a kippah, a skullcap. Marcelle, his observant mother (Betsy Aidem), wants him to cover it with a baseball cap. She has become frightened by rising incidents of violence. Charles, his father (Nael Nacer), who escaped the Algerian persecution of Jews, was walking to synagogue with his son when he realized the depth of his fear. The people in the street stared at his son with hatred, he said. He is the one who suggests the family relocates to Israel.
Aria Shahghasemi and Molly Ranson.
Photo credit: Jeremy Daniel.
We witness the debate about emigrating. Marcelle talks about her French roots and their apartment in Paris, where she was raised. She is a psychiatrist, recently named head of her department. Charles has a successful medical practice. They don’t speak Hebrew. And Israel is always at war. But Marcelle can’t sleep after a Jewish doctor was murdered in her apartment. She can’t even open the door for the prophet Elijah, part of the traditional Passover service. Eight thousand Jews emigrated to Israel the year before, Charles reminds her.
Too many family dramas are thin, the characters sketchy. Harmon brings us a variety of personalities, each speaking in their own rhythms, especially Elodie (Francis Benhamou), Daniel’s brilliant, manic-depressive sister. Benhamou is luminous. The writing is smart and often quotable, funny and poignant. Director David Cromer is at the top of his game, wise with pauses, sensitive to subtlety and mood, at ease with the transitions from the 1940s to 2016.
The three hours flew by, and although I had seen the play just two years ago, I was totally engaged. The celebration of Jewish holidays punctuates the play naturally. The scene where Charles, Daniel and Molly are making jelly donuts, a traditional dessert for Hannukah, lightly touches on young love. Molly and Daniel have returned home together. Daniel boasts that his father is preparing an old family recipe, but as they shape the dough, Charles confesses that he learned it from an old girlfriend, something he never told his wife.
Molly (Molly Ranson), a young American third or fourth cousin, was more of a comic figure in 2022, a naïve ingenue, not a prophet. She interrupts a family conversation to report on Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Elodie scoffs at her lack of historical understanding. “Did you learn that on you laptop?” she asks. And Marcelle adds, “When you’re in danger, your perspective is different.”
Now it’s Molly who seems insightful and the Benhamou family that seem in denial. This has altered critical reaction to Harmon’s beautifully crafted play. Patrick, who decides to stay in France and who predicts that Marine Le Pen, daughter of a virulent anti-Semitic politician, will lose her 2017 bid for the presidency, also appears wiser.
Current events have shifted our sensibilities. The danger of this one family is not as loud in our ears as before although these characters are compelling and touch our hearts. Their danger is real, but the personal can get swallowed up by history. Time will probably restore the emotional balance Prayer evokes, but for now, as horror follows horror in the Middle East, Harmon’s phrase “the suitcase or the coffin” has taken on a new meaning.