The playwright of Bad Jews, Joshua Harmon, tends to come up with titles that scare producers. His latest, which Manhattan Theatre Club is presenting on New York City Center Stage 1—Prayer for the French Republic—features a prayer said in French synagogues since the early 19th century. Its contemporary application is prompted by the surge of antisemitic slaughters that rocked Paris in recent years and caused a mass exodus of French Jews to kinder environs.
“It’s the suitcase or the coffin,” reasons Charles Benhamou (Jeff Seymour), a physician who speaks with some authority, having fled Algeria decades before for a safer haven in France. The wife he finds there, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), and her brother, Patrick Salomon (Richard Topol), are Jewish-Catholic hybrids who grew up in Paris and have both feet firmly planted there.
Comfortably assimilated and secular, they don’t call attention to themselves—unlike her grown son, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), who comes home bloodied and battered one day because he wore a yamaka—when, she feels, he could have just as easily hidden his faith under a baseball cap.
Basically, it’s Marcelle’s play—how she, as matriarch, comes to grips with a family crisis and resolves it selflessly. “I love being in the driver’s seat, feeling I’m integral to the spine of the play,” admits Aidem, who has a field day in the role. “I feel the more you can use of yourself—the worst part and, occasionally, the best part—is the most exciting and challenging part of it.”
Marcelle, to her, is a catalyst for what’s happening, “not admitting the danger, thinking it’s a simple fix like a baseball cap but having her husband say to her, ‘It’s changing. It’s growing. It’s getting worse.’ She has one of the most gloriously written arcs for someone who starts out seemingly strong and grounded—and loses her footing. It’s a wonderful way to move through a story. Usually, you watch somebody who’s lost find their strength. With Marcelle, she loses her way and makes that ultimate decision to leave the place that has been her home her whole life.
“I can’t imagine having to do that. I’ve been in New York since 1976. I grew up in Arizona, and I chose New York as my home. This is where my friends are. My brother lives here. I feel a sense of being part of the culture of New York. I would be heartbroken to give up all the museums that I go to, walking down the street, seeing the melting pot of New York—I just love all that.”
Of course, she concedes, leaving home is just what her great-grandparents did. “They were run out of Russia. Some got to Poland. The rest were sent to Auschwitz. I’m only a generation and a half from all the great aunts I never met, so it’s a personal play for me. Aside from being moving and entertaining, it’s really a wildly educative piece. A lot of people don’t know antisemitism is happening. Nobody wants to hear about more hate in the world, but we have to pay attention.”
Thanks to the pandemic, the play got the two-year incubation period that it needed, with little readings here and workshops there of different parts of the play that were changing and evolving. Right before lockdown, the cast experienced the play for the first time in a workshop done at Manhattan Theatre Club. By then, Aidem had developed a familial rapport with most of the assembled players—notably with Francis Benhamou, her bipolar daughter given to multi-page political rants, and Molly Ranson, a visiting American cousin who receives those rants.
Another veteran of that first workshop, Topol functions as the play’s designated narrator and doesn’t really enter the action as Patrick to intermingle with the other characters until Act II when he mainly serves as the counterargument of standing pat and keeping your head down.
“Josh and I had a lot of conversations about how Patrick fits into, and outside, of the play,” he relays. “I kept asking, ‘Am I Tom in The Glass Menagerie? Is this my memory play?’ The thing is, I need to tell the story. I need to remember my family. By bringing this play into being, Patrick is like a plaque on the side of a building that memorializes something. He is drawn back into the play because he wants the audience to understand the journey that his family has been on.
“From my point of view, it’s a break-up play. I’m losing my sister, the most important family member I have. It’s about where everybody stands on the continuum of how safe it is for Jews to stay in France anymore. Patrick believes Jews are safe there as anywhere. You just don’t put yourself in harm’s way. If I thought what I believed was so dangerous that I shouldn’t believe it out loud, what would I do? Would I hide? Would I assimilate? Would I fight back? Would I run away? I’m not religious, but I’m definitely more of a Jew than Patrick is. It is weirdly pleasurable to be on stage and say, ‘Look, c’mon, organized religion is b.s. You’re smart enough to know that, right? It’s not worth risking your life for religion.’ That’s not the guiding force in his life.”
Topol brings another dimension to the play: he has the big song in the show—well, the only song in the show. He’s sung on stage before, but he’s never played a musical instrument on stage. He learned to play the piano for “I Thought About You” (the playwright’s pick), and, even then, the actor in him made him wonder if he should play it well (as befits a son of a piano-selling clan) or, like everything else about his family, if he should stand a little bit outside it.
If the subject is Antisemitism Through the Ages, Harmon has researched it thoroughly and thrown an incredibly wide net, ranging from a gruesome medieval atrocity during the Crusades to the 2015 Islamist attack on the satirical Paris magazine Charlie Hebdo. His Prayer for the French Republic spans five generations in 73 years, operates on two different time zones (1944-1946 and 2016-2017), requires 11 actors, and takes three acts (and three hours) to tell.
David Cromer, who has the daunting job of directing this massive human saga, miraculously keeps it running like a freight train, making all the right emotional stops along the way.
Setting two different Parisian apartments on a revolving turntable definitely helps, seamlessly facilitating flashbacks from modern times to World War II, which Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents (Kenneth Tigar and Nancy Robinette) spend in their flat with the blinds closed; they’re still there when their son (Ari Brand) and grandson (Peyton Lusk) return, numbed by concentration-camp horrors. The latter character, first seen as a teenager, grows into a patriarch and is beautifully played by 91-year-old Pierre Epstein.
The script Harmon first dropped on Cromer was a 185-page work-in-progress, but it was eventually whittled down below the three-hour mark. “I defer to the gifts of the playwright,” Cromer says. “When there was too much language, or something was repetitive and not helpful to the thesis, he would get rid of it, fill it, refine it.“ Sometimes, things didn’t get shorter. They just got better. Josh writes propulsive scenes. This scene leads to that and leads to that and leads to that. The characters tell you what they want. They demand the next moment. It makes directing them fluid. We weren’t bowling on sand. We were sending that ball right down the alley to the pins.
“There’s always this mania for plays being short. We think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to see something that’s too long because it is padded or uninteresting or doesn’t have a lot to say,’ but this myth of the 90-minute play with no intermission that packs a wallop doesn’t seem realistic to me. It’s like saying, ‘I’d like to see the play, but I don’t want to feel like I’ve gone through anything.’”
Cromer’s attraction to this play was immediate. “It’s about something absolutely primal,” he insists. “I can believe in my own safety on a day-to-day basis. I can lock my door. I’m home. I live in a pleasant neighborhood, so I have safety I can count on. Then, suddenly, you don’t. There’s a pandemic, or Donald Trump becomes president, and things happen that remind you danger lurks at all times. Safety is never assured, no matter what you do. We’re in this precarious state. What moved me about this play was this universality about our fear for our security. We’ve never known that. I’ve never been a refugee. I’ve never had to leave my country or been attacked by my own neighborhood. That’s a lucky and privileged experience.”
Apparently, Cromer is now impervious to scary play titles. His next opus, opening in mid-April at the Signature Theater, is a drama by Samuel D. Hunter called A Case for the Existence of God.