Off-Broadway Review: PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC (Manhattan Theater Club)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on February 7, 2022

in Theater-New York


“Exquisite” is probably a devalued and over-used descriptive at this point is our society. However, Manhattan Theater Club’s current production of Prayer for the French Republic deserves this particular adjective. Painstakingly written by Joshua Harmon, this three-hour exploration of Jewish identity and human cruelty via multiple generations of a French-Jewish family is at once funny, informative, engaging and horrific.

Francis Benhamou, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Dor

Essentially a memory play, the story concerns the history, future and present-day lives of the fictional Saloman family, whose business is selling pianos. Beautiful, stately, grand pianos. And one such piano sits centerstage most of the play. The upper-middle-class Parisian apartment of the Benhamou family is on Takeshi Kata’s incredible mechanized set, which rotates and telescopes to show various areas within that small family apartment but also becomes the banks of the Seine, a Parisian coffeehouse, and a small Paris apartment circa 1945.

Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar

Why are we in the Benhamou apartment if the play is about the Saloman family? Because Dr. Marcelle Saloman, a French woman who happens to be Jewish, is married to Dr. Charles Benhamou, a Jewish man of Algerian descent whose family fled his country to France when he was a boy. It’s in this apartment that they raised their two twenty-something children who still live at home – son Daniel, a teacher at a Hebrew school who refuses to hide his Jewishness, and daughter Elodie, a diagnosed manic depressive who knows better than, well, everybody. When Daniel gets beat up for wearing a yarmulke on the street instead of a baseball cap (which his mother has often implored him to do) the growing danger of being Jewish in France hits home. Seeing his bloodied son is the last straw and Charles announces to the family that he believes France is now too dangerous to live in and he wants to move the family to Israel. A move Marcelle definitely does not want to make. And the play takes off.

Richard Topol

But not before an unexpected visit from Marcelle’s distant American cousin, 21-year-old Molly, an Upper Eastside New Yorker who is doing a college year abroad in France. She’s not particularly connected to her Jewish roots but not opposed to them either. It’s during her first meeting with Marcelle at the apartment, ostensibly just to stay the weekend as she’s housed with a family outside of Paris, that Daniel comes home bleeding from his assault. Chaos ensues — along with accusations from Elodie of Molly being a privileged, oblivious, ill-informed American.

Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou

But none of that happens before the audience is directly addressed at the top of the play by Marcelle’s brother, Patrick. He serves mostly as a Greek Chorus throughout, telling the family story as well as the larger story of Jewish history, or rather the atrocities meted upon Jewish-identified people worldwide. Harmon uses this telescoping focus throughout the play, the wider history to the specific situation, showing how everything continues to influence everything else to devastating effect. Veteran actor Richard Topol plays Patrick with a snarky somewhat condescending attitude, which is perfect for this character who seems to have adopted a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stance in regards to his Jewishness. Amazingly, his snark is most effective in relating historical atrocities. It somehow makes the truth easier to hear which makes it all the more horrific.

Peyton Lusk (right) and the cast

Patrick is also the play’s bridge to the past and is allowed to speak to his dead paternal great-grandparents at a time when his eventual father is only fifteen. These great-grandparents are living in a small apartment in France during the Nazi occupation, spared from arrest because of their advanced ages. It is there they sit for two years, not knowing the whereabouts of their children and grandchildren.

Betsy Aidem, Richard Topol, Pierre Epstein,
Francis Benhamou (seated/facing away), and Jeff Seymour (seated/facing away)

If these plot points seem a bit confusing, in practice they are absolutely not. The exquisite acting, exquisite direction and exquisite writing combine to make this an easy to follow, if sometimes difficult to watch journey. As the play jumps back and forth in time and performance style — grappling with broader issues such as identity, survival, assimilation and violence to more mundane concerns — Is Daniel dating Molly? Who will take care of Marcelle and Patrick’s elderly father? — Harmon hauntingly demonstrates the resonances of past, present and future continuing to bounce off each other and influence life around us. And those resonances continue to be felt on the set when it shifts back to present-day.

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

Director David Cromer’s usage of the expert set is a master-class in staging. It’s almost filmic in the way he offers unexpected angles and points of view by shifting actors, whose performances are staggering across the board. Marcelle is the anchor of the piece and Betsy Aidem gives a smart, funny, deeply human performance. Francis Benhamou’s is hilarious and manic as Elodie, who has some of the wisest and perceptive text in the piece, which Benhamou delivers beautifully. Molly Ranson’s is all wide-eyed American as Molly, who is no push-over with definite opinions. Yair Ben-Dor as Daniel is a mass of sensitivity and courage in his refusal to take the easy path. As Charles, Jeff Seymour shines as the concerned, protective father who has first-hand experience of leaving a loved homeland rather than be killed. Ari Brand is heart-breaking as Lucien, a concentration camp survivor and Marcelle and Patrick’s paternal grandfather.

As the great-grandparents Irma and Adolphe, Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar are incredibly believable as this older, longtime couple. In one of the plays best moments, they sit at the dining room table in their isolated apartment with Irma saying where she thinks their children are. Adolphe tells her that’s a fantasy and then proceeds to give her fantasy right back to her in a slightly different form. It’s such an act of love and compassion and so beautifully played it was almost too private to watch. How many times must they have had that conversation in order to survive?

Molly Ranson, Jeff Seymour, and Yair Ben-Do

And essentially that’s the question of the play. How many times must atrocities happen? Must people flee? Must people feel unsafe? Must people refuse to understand each other? And the play does not answer these questions because it can’t. That’s left up to the audience. In a later scene, great-grandfather Adolphe explains that the reason the family sells pianos is because the piano gives people joy. And that’s what the world at that time (just after World War II) needs. With the elements of theater creation all in top form, Prayer for the French Republic at The Manhattan Theatre Club will give people joy as well. And reason to consider where our society is headed today. Which is just what theater should do for an audience. Exquisite.

photos © Matthew Murphy (2021)

Prayer for the French Republic
Manhattan Theater Club
New York City Center, Stage 1 (reviewed on January 28, 2022)
EXTENDED to March 27, 2022
for tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit NY City Center,
or by visiting the Center box office (131 West 55th Street)

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