Review: For Jews, an Unanswered ‘Prayer for the French Republic’

Review: For Jews, an Unanswered ‘Prayer for the French Republic’

Such is the sadness of our world that plays about antisemitism, however historical, cannot help but be prescient. Take “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua Harmon’s sprawling family drama about the Salomons, Jews who have “been in France more than a thousand years,” as one of them puts it, still sounding provisional. With violent incidents on the rise, and a fascistic, Nazi-adjacent party gaining in the polls, should they finally seek safety elsewhere?

When it ran Off Broadway in 2022, “Prayer for the French Republic” already seemed painfully timely, with the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the murder of a Holocaust survivor in Paris and other antisemitic atrocities barely in the rearview mirror. Two years later, with so much more awfulness to choose from, Harmon, revising his script for Broadway, has cut references to those events. What is too much for the world is way too much for the play.

And the play, for all its urgency, is already way too much. Running just over three hours, “Prayer for the French Republic,” which opened on Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is still not long enough to do justice to the multiple histories it wants to tell. In the manner of prestige television series, but compressed for the stage to the point of confusion, it tries to dramatize the largest and most intractable world issues within the microcosm of a single family, creating an impossible burden on both.

That this Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by David Cromer, remains mostly riveting is the result of the richness of Harmon’s novelistic detail — and the exceptional skill of the principal actors in realizing it. Chief among them is Betsy Aidem, as Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, a psychiatrist living in Paris in 2016 who seems to need a psychiatrist herself. Overprotective and yet hypercritical of her two children, she loses control when one of them, Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), is beaten up by antisemitic thugs near the school where he teaches.

Marcelle’s frenzied response creates a fissure in the family that the play then proceeds to pry wide open. Her husband, Charles Benhamou (Nael Nacer), a physician who emigrated to France from Algeria when conditions became impossible for Jews in the early 1960s, eventually concludes that, like his native country then, his adopted one now is profoundly unsafe. Familiar with sudden uprootings, he wants to move as soon as possible — to Israel.

Pointing out that Israel is no one’s idea of a safe haven, Marcelle is at first inalterably opposed to the idea. But it is less her fear of the Middle East than her connection to France that compels her to stay. Her elderly father, Pierre (Richard Masur), runs the last of the piano stores that the Salomons built into a national brand, with 22 stores, over five generations starting in 1855. A gorgeous, amber-colored grand, with “Salomon” spelled in gold on the fallboard, is the first and last thing we see in the show.

There are few pieces of furniture harder to pack than a grand piano, which here becomes symbolic of the gift Jews have made to French culture and the expectation of permanent welcome the gift would seem to have earned them. That it hasn’t is the story’s heartbreak.

But France is hardly the whole story, as Harmon shows us in alternating scenes set in the mid-1940s. Somehow left untouched by the German occupation of Paris, Marcelle’s great-grandparents Irma and Adolphe Salomon (Nancy Robinette and Daniel Oreskes) await word of the fate of their family at the end of the war. Soon, their son Lucien (Ari Brand) returns with his son, Pierre (Ethan Haberfield) — the old man of the later scenes but then just 15. Both father and son are obviously traumatized by their time in Auschwitz. And where is everyone else?

You can probably guess. But if the scenes from the earlier period lend pathos to the later one, with which they frequently interpenetrate, little flows back from the later to the earlier. The 1940s material is sad but dutiful. Similarly, three characters who take up a lot of the play’s energy in the 2010s do not actually contribute much to its central conflict. One is Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Anthony Edwards): aggressively atheistic, disdainful of Sabbaths and seders, nasty without apparent cause except to provide cover for his otherwise contextless presence as the narrator.

Slightly more integrated, and much more entertaining, is Marcelle and Charles’s daughter, Elodie (Frances Benhamou), a frequently pajamafied, hilariously logorrheic, self-involved know-it-all riding out the tail end of a two-year manic-depressive episode. (If you saw Harmon’s 2012 play, “Bad Jews,” she’ll remind you of Daphna Feygenbaum, an early version of the type.) Her punching bag is Molly (Molly Ranson), a distant cousin who visits Paris during her college year abroad. Both Marcelle and Elodie lay into Molly constantly, as if her naïveté, which they attribute to her being a pampered American, were a crime against Judaism.

Though Ranson makes as good a case on Molly’s behalf as the script will allow — she played the object of Daphna’s fury in “Bad Jews,” so she knows the territory — her conflict with the Benhamou women, like her budding romance with dreamy Daniel, is a loose end and a diversion: a season-two development in a one-season story. She is, at least, more likable than the Parisians. Marcelle’s frenzies and Elodie’s diatribes (one lasts a withering 17 minutes) tip the tone into psychiatric cabaret, leaving the antisemitic trauma to jostle for dramatic space with the garden-variety antisocial kind, eventually to be overwhelmed by it.

Is it Harmon’s point that “bad” Jews like the Salomons in the 2010s, perhaps made neurotic in the first place by antisemitism, have as much right to the protection of their homeland as unimpeachably “good” ones, like their forebears in the 1940s? In any case, a right to our attention is a different matter, especially as the characters’ fiercely defended opinions grow repetitive and perseverative — and then flip radically, without apparent motivation. By the third act, the arguments have stripped their gears completely, and the play ends in sentimental exhaustion.

That exhaustion is one of the few elements of naturalism (to be a Jew is to be morally exhausted) in a mostly expressionistic production. Like many Cromer stagings, “Prayer for the French Republic” is richly and darkly lit (in this case by Amith Chandrashaker) and moves among periods and locations with exquisite smoothness on tracks and turntables (sets by Takeshi Kata). The original music, by Daniel Kluger, sounds like Jewish memory, led by the cheerful-baleful tang of a clarinet.

But like Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” “Prayer for the French Republic” (its title the name of a blessing recited in French synagogues for 200 years) gets lost in its central question: How can Jews know if it’s time to leave yet another home, in a history of hundreds, where they think they are safe but may soon find out otherwise? The prayer that they might not have to leave at all — the prayer for the end of antisemitism itself — has not been answered yet.

Prayer for the French Republic
Through Feb. 18 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes.

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