Review: For Jews, an unanswered ‘prayer for the French Republic’

Such is the sadness of our world that games with anti-Semitism, no matter how historical, cannot help but be prophetic. Take “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua Harmon’s sprawling family drama about the Salomons, Jews who have “been in France over a thousand years,” as one of them puts it, and which still sounds tentative. With violent incidents on the rise and a Nazi-adjacent fascist party winning in the polls, should they finally seek safety elsewhere?

When it opened 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 anti-Semitic atrocities just in the offing. rear-view mirror. Two years later, with much more horror to choose from, Harmon, revising his Broadway script, removed references to those events. What is too much for the world is too much for the work.

And the work, despite its urgency, is already too much. At just over three hours long, “Prayer for the French Republic,” which premiered Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is still not long enough to do justice to the multiple stories it wants to tell. In the manner of a prestige television series, but compressed for the stage to the point of confusion, it attempts to dramatize the world’s largest and most intractable problems within the microcosm of a single family, creating an impossible burden for both.

That this Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by David Cromer, remains fascinating is the result of the richness of Harmon’s novelistic details and the lead actors’ exceptional skill in realizing them. Chief among them is Betsy Aidem, as Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, a psychiatrist living in Paris in 2016 who seems to need a psychiatrist. Overprotective and at the same time hypercritical of her two children, she loses control of her when one of them, Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), is beaten by anti-Semitic bullies near the school where she teaches.

Marcelle’s frantic response creates a rift in the family that the play then proceeds to tear wide open. Her husband, Charles Benhamou (Nael Nacer), a doctor who emigrated to France from Algeria when conditions became impossible for Jews in the early 1960s, eventually concludes that, like his then native country, his adopted country now it is deeply insecure. Familiar with sudden uprootings, he wants to move to Israel as soon as possible.

Pointing out that Israel is not anyone’s idea of ​​a safe haven, Marcelle is at first unalterably opposed to the idea. But it’s less her fear of the Middle East than her connection to France that compels her to stay. His elderly father, Pierre (Richard Masur), runs the last of the piano stores that the Salomons turned into a national brand, with 22 stores, over five generations starting in 1855. A beautiful amber grand piano , with the word “Salomon” written on it. in gold on the skirt, it is the first and last thing we see in the exhibition.

There are few pieces of furniture more difficult to pack than a grand piano, which here becomes a symbol of the gift that Jews have given to French culture and the expectation of permanent welcome that the gift seems to have earned for them. That this is not the case is the anguish of the story.

But France is not the whole story, as Harmon shows us in alternating scenes set in the mid-1940s. Somehow untouched by the German occupation of Paris, Marcelle’s great-grandparents, Irma and Adolphe Salomon (Nancy Robinette and Daniel Oreskes ), they wait for news about the fate of their family at the end of the war. Soon, her son Lucien (Ari Brand) returns with his son Pierre (Ethan Haberfield), the old man from the later scenes, but who was then only 15 years old. 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 previous period bring pathos to the later period, with which they frequently interpenetrate, little returns from the later period to the previous one. The 40s material is sad but obedient. Similarly, three characters who consume much of the play’s energy in the 2010s don’t actually contribute much to its central conflict. One is Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Anthony Edwards): aggressively atheist, disdainful of Sabbaths and seders, unpleasant for no apparent reason except to cover his otherwise out-of-context presence as narrator.

Slightly more integrated, and much more entertaining, is Marcelle and Charles’ daughter Elodie (Frances Benhamou), a self-absorbed, hilariously logorrheic, frequently pajama-clad know-it-all going through the end of a two-year manic-depressive episode. . (If you saw Harmon’s 2012 play, “Bad Jews,” it will remind you of Daphna Feygenbaum, an early version of the guy.) Her punching bag is Molly (Molly Ranson), a distant cousin visiting Paris during her college year. abroad. Both Marcelle and Elodie constantly criticized Molly, as if her naivety, which they attribute to her being a spoiled American, was a crime against Judaism.

Although Ranson defends Molly as well as the script allows (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 the dreamer Daniel, It’s a loose end and a distraction: the development of the second season into a single-season story. She is, at least, nicer than the Parisians. Marcelle’s frenzies and Elodie’s tirades (one of them lasting a withering 17 minutes) tilt the tone of the psychiatric cabaret, letting the anti-Semitic trauma fight for dramatic space with the run-of-the-mill antisocial type, only to eventually be overwhelmed by him.

Is Harmon meaning that “bad” Jews like the Salomons in the 2010s, perhaps neurotic in the first place by anti-Semitism, have as much right to the protection of their homeland as impeccably “good” ones, like their ancestors? ​​in the 1940s? In any case, the right to our attention is a different matter, especially when the characters’ fiercely held opinions become repetitive and persistent, and then change radically, without apparent motivation. By the third act, the plots have been completely stripped away and the play ends in sentimental exhaustion.

That exhaustion is one of the few elements of naturalism (to be Jewish is to be morally exhausted) in a largely expressionist production. Like many Cromer stagings, “Prayer for the French Republic” is richly and darkly lit (in this case by Amith Chandrashaker) and moves between periods and locations with exquisite smoothness on tracks and turntables (decorations by Takeshi Kata). The original music, by Daniel Kluger, sounds like a Jewish memoir, led by the joyful and sinister flavor of a clarinet.

But like Tom Stoppard’s “Leopoldstadt,” “Prayer for the French Republic” (its title is the name of a blessing recited in French synagogues for 200 years) misses its central question: How can Jews know if Is it time to leave another home? , in a story of hundreds, where they believe they are safe but will soon discover otherwise? The prayer that perhaps they won’t have to leave at all (the prayer for an end to anti-Semitism itself) has not yet been answered.

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

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