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Prayer for the French Republic

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - February 1, 2021

Nancy Robinette, Kenneth Tigar, Ari Brand, Pierre Epstein,
Peyton Lusk, and Richard Topol

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Joshua Harmon has a lot on his mind. That's clear from his program note for Prayer for the French Republic, his new, unwieldy but compelling comedy-drama–and it's heavy on both, but heavier on the drama. He relates how he'd been attending various productions of his previous hit, the hilarious and mean-spirited Bad Jews, and noticed how audience response was shifting. Lines that weren't getting laughs before now were, and he attributed that to people being more desperate to laugh in light of the increasing violent attacks on Jews, from the 2012 shooting at a day school in Toulouse to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018. "It seems," he writes, "more of us–maybe all of us?–are grappling with how to live in an ever more dangerous, ominous, confounding world. So, whatever your background, I hope this fictionalized story resonates with some true aspect of your own experience."

And it likely will, for the specificity of time and place in Prayer for the French Republic–it's set mostly in two Paris apartments, from 1944-46 in one of them, and 2016-17 in the other–doesn't prevent Harmon from making universal observations on our recent, and present, climate of mistrust, prejudice, unsafeness, and violence perpetrated on minorities. He's painting on a wide canvas, and it takes a while to adjust to the frequent polemics and the meting out of soliloquies to every major character, at least one of which is something of a masterpiece. But under David Cromer's assured direction, it's not hard to follow. And Harmon's willingness to place ghastly situations, even tragedy, against funny family bickering and rapid-fire dialogue that wouldn't be out of place in a drawing room, keeps us guessing, and generally riveted.

We're dealing with two fictitious families: the Salomons, a French piano-making dynasty (prominent in Takeshi Kata's scenic design is a gorgeous grand), and the Benhamous, well-do-to Parisian professionals the Salomons married into. Charles Benhamou (Jeff Seymour), a doctor, married Marcelle Salomon (Betsy Aidem), a high-strung psychotherapy professor; their children are Elodie (Francis Benhamou), a loquacious manic-depressive who insists on winning every argument, and Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), the most religious among them, who has just been jumped and bloodied up by three toughs for wearing a yarmulke. On the sidelines is Patrick (Richard Topol), Marcelle's cynical and thoroughly assimilated brother, who's our sometimes-narrator. And visiting from New York is Molly (Molly Ranson; interesting how several actors' names match the characters'–possibly because they've been with the project since the start), a distant cousin, a college student studying for a year in France, who, well-meaning as she is, tends to ignite conflicts.

Molly Ranson, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Dor
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Got all that? Then, back in 1944, and conjured up by Patrick's curiosity about them, are his and Marcelle's great-grandmother Irma (Nancy Robinette) and great-grandfather Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar, who unfortunately hasn't much to do). They were lucky; the SS agent sent to collect them was persuaded by the apartment's super to leave them alone, and they eke out a modest, nearly invisible existence while worrying about their grown children, one of whom escaped to Cuba and two who didn't. One offspring, Lucien (Ari Brand), will eventually be liberated from Auschwitz, along with his quiet teenage son Pierre (Peyton Lusk), who will survive into the modern section of the play. Now, got all that?

So much family history, and so much for the family to fight about. Marcelle wishes Daniel would wear a baseball cap, to cover the yarmulke and keep out of harm's way. Charles, terrified about anti-Semitism and the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen, wants to move to Israel, which is hardly anti-Semitism-proof, but at least they'd be among the majority. Daniel and Molly may be pursuing a distant-cousin romance, and Marcelle is trying to get the hands-off Patrick to take over some of her responsibility caring for the aged Pierre (Pierre Epstein, doing a delightful Mel Brooks turn). Elodie has no particular agenda, but she sure has a voice. It manifests itself most triumphantly in an extended monologue in a bar, where she unloads to Molly a lifetime of resentment regarding Jewish history, American history, Israeli history, American self-centeredness, 9/11, and much more. Benhamou's delivery, punctuated only by Molly's futile efforts to jump back into the conversation, is breathless and virtuoso, and this is going to leap to the forefront of audition pieces in the near future. You read it here.

Harmon spends almost as much time on a soapbox as he does sorting out the familial issues, and he could have been more graceful about it. The Act Two curtain (there are three acts) has Lucien divulging information to Irma and Adolphe–awful information, but it's not credible that he wouldn't have divulged it earlier. Elodie gets a second monologue near the end, speculating on why Jews are so hated–eloquent, but it's inconceivable that Elodie would be the one conveying these points in this logical, well-reasoned fashion. Evidently, Harmon wanted to make them so badly, he didn't care who voiced them, or how out of context they were. He has striking, sad things to say on several topics, notably the plight of the wandering Jew: "It's the suitcase or the coffin," is how Charles puts it. He also has characters vent on the frightening rise of the National Front, the equally frightening outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. But this stuff does sometimes come out of nowhere.

It's well acted (as what David Cromer production isn't?), with Behnamou's firebrand Elodie, Aidem's panicky Marcelle, and Ranson's sweetly awkward Molly making especially strong impressions. Cromer paces it briskly, with numerous overlapping conversations where we wish we could hear more of what's being said, and with the two disparate time periods sometimes encroaching on one another. But past and present intersect bracingly at the end, when the older Pierre, among the rest of the family, assesses some difficult new realities. When Charles tells him, "It doesn't seem like things are headed in a good direction," his reply is, "Have things ever been headed in a good direction?" In context, it's a funny line, and a painful one–have they ever? And Harmon has a stirring finale in mind, one you maybe can see coming if you're sharp-eyed enough; but whether you can or not, it'll leave a lump in your throat.

Complex family dynamics, dynastic heritage, senseless hate and how to respond to it.

Prayer for the French Republic is a messier play than Bad Jews, but in the end a richer one, and vastly richer than Harmon's other well-known opus, Significant Other, which gets produced a lot, and I've never understood why. This one, though set in the recent and less-recent past, bubbles with issues that feel as current as this morning's front page. Which you may not even want to read. Harmon seems to be telling us, you'd better.

Prayer for the French Republic
Through February 27, 2022
Manhattan Theater Club Stage 1, 131 W. 55th St., New York NYC
59 East 59th Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: