Prayer for the French Republic | 3hrs 10mins. Two intermissions. | Samuel L. Friedman Theatre | 261 W. 47th Street | 212-239-6200
We want playwrights processing current events, right? Artfully, skeptically, subversively, just so long as they cast our thoughts beyond the walls of the theater. Joshua Harmon certainly rises to the challenge in his sober and passionately argued Prayer for the French Republic, about a Jewish family shaken by a rise in European antisemitism circa 2016-17, as France’s voters decide between Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Besides its recent-ish setting, the drama’s relevance is unavoidably evergreen, a reflection of periodic resurgences of global Jew-hatred, from the Middle East to America’s Ivy League. Even so, Harmon’s play seems uncannily prophetic after the atrocities of October 7 and the appalling bloodshed that has followed. When his Benhamou clan finally resolves to leave Paris for Israel, their exodus seems less a run to freedom than a slouch toward unimaginable horrors.
Prayer premiered Off Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club in early 2022, a distinct warning cry less than four years after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. That domestic terrorist attack was alluded to in the script, but the reference has been scrubbed from the Broadway version, also produced by MTC. Perhaps the edit is to keep the play’s resonance open-ended, to soften an inevitable on-the-noseness. The line in question was spoken by Patrick, a man who considers himself French first and Jewish second—if at all. Patrick is the play’s diffident but conflicted narrator, brother of Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), matriarch of the solidly bourgeois Benhamou family. He’s an interestingly unstable device. A fiercely assimilated Jew who considers all religion “bullshit,” Patrick nevertheless acts as the recording angel of the play, the one who reminds us of crimes committed against Jews for centuries.
Off Broadway, Patrick was played by the canny and empathetic actor Richard Topol. Currently, the part belongs to Anthony Edwards (of TV’s E.R.), who has a wry, befuddled quality that works in group scenes, but leaves him unfocused in monologues directed to the audience. Still, if Prayer’s frame has grown wobbly, the central story remains vibrant and confidently driven by three outstanding women from the original cast: the fierce-willed Aidem; Francis Benhamou as Marcelle’s brilliant but bipolar daughter, Elodie; and Molly Ranson as college-age Molly, an American cousin many times removed who’s spending a gap year France—while getting drawn into Benhamou drama.
The trouble starts when their son, Daniel (Aria Shahghasem), staggers home with a nose bloodied by random street thugs. For reasons that turn out to be both spiritual and shallow, Daniel has been wearing a yarmulke in the street, making him an easy target. “Why can’t he be private?” a distraught Marcelle cries. “Religion is not something to advertise!” Daniel insists he’s okay and brushes off the violence; his father, Charles (Nael Nacer), a doctor, descends into (rational) paranoia that ends with him announcing he wants to move to Israel. Marcelle, a psychiatrist, emphatically does not; Daniel is surprisingly ambivalent; and Elodie is too busy scoring points off Molly’s Yankee ignorance to decide what she wants. Elodie understands the arguments for and against a Jewish state so well, she’s paralyzed by complexity.
Harmon throws in a dash of transatlantic romance: Molly and Daniel are getting a bit too close—even for distant cousins. To be sure, they do the opposite of meet cute: Chatting late one night on the couch, Daniel takes offense when Molly describes herself as of Jewish extraction. “It’s a disdainful way of referring to yourself,” he chides her. “It’s not. It’s accurate,” she replies, and like most of the arguments Harmon deftly builds, both are right.
Alternating scenes in the near-present are ones in 1944 to 1946, as Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolphe (Daniel Oreskes) wait out the Nazi occupation of Paris holed up in their apartment, waiting for word of their children deported to concentration camps. When their son, Lucien (Ari Brand) and grandson, Pierre (Ethan Haberfeld), return home after Allied forces liberated their Polish camp—both of them gaunt and traumatized—it’s only a matter of time before they confess the earthly hell they survived—and relations they saw murdered.
Second only to Appropriate as Broadway’s best new play (so far this season), Prayer’s three hours pass fleetly due to a strong cast under David Cromer’s keen, incisive direction and tastefully spare visuals. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata exploits the stage revolve, with the walls of the Benhamou flat rotating around a central piano (Marcelle’s side of the family, the Salomons, has long been in the piano business) to clear space for scenes in the past. Islands of light within shadows and rich blue washes distinguish Amith Chandrashaker’s handsome lighting, and Sarah Laux’s costumes bridge time periods with elegance and easy naturalism.
Is the play a little neat, with each member of the Benhamou household occupying a convenient point along the continuum of Jewish identity? Does the counterpointing of time periods shortchange characters in the 1940s, flattening nuance in favor of victimhood? Is Harmon so in love with comically lengthy rants (e.g., his Bad Jews and Admissions) that he pays more attention to Elodie’s anti-American Act II diatribe (masterfully delivered by Francis Benhamou) than her mental problems? Yes to all, but the writing is undeniably witty and supple, and the arguments about identity, homeland, and antisemitism (“why do they hate us?”) painfully relevant. When the living and the dead gather around the piano in the final moments to sing France’s national anthem, the mood is wistful and nostalgic. The Benhamous are condemned to wander—this time to Israel—and the lyrics of “La Marseillaise” sound both inspirational and terrifying: “Let’s march / That their impure blood / Should