Theater Review: PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC (The Huntington in Boston, MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on September 14, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Should they stay or should they go? That is the question that haunts the characters of this brilliant play by Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews, Skintight). It is directed by Loretta Greco, the new artistic director of The Huntington. As a long-time Boston-area theater fan, I can only say that if this production is an indication of what we can expect from Greco going forward, I am utterly thrilled.

(front) Tony Estrella, (back) Peter Van Wagner, Phyllis Kay

The script is witty and sobering. While most of the action takes place in the Paris apartment of the Salomon Benhamou family in 2016–2017, we also get vignettes of life for an earlier generation of Salomons in 1944–1946. Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Amy Resnick) is the linchpin of the action, and Resnick fulfills the role convincingly. She is the granddaughter and daughter of the earlier generation of the well-established French-Jewish piano-selling Salomon family who has married Charles Benhamou (Nael Nacer), the son of Algerian Jews who immigrated to France in the 1960s when Charles was a child.

Talia Sulla, Joshua Chessin-Yudin

She is also the mother of Daniel (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) and Elodie (Carly Zien), the distant cousin of charming Molly (Talia Sulla), the American exchange student “of Jewish extraction” who camps out on the family sofa during weekend visits and who Daniel understandably falls in love with, and the sister of Patrick (Tony Estrella).

Amy Resnick, Tony Estrella

If this abbreviated genealogy leaves you wanting to make some kind of a graphic, it is nothing compared to the rapid-fire multi-generational history Marcelle offers Molly when she first arrives in the apartment. Resnick plays the role of Marcelle with all the admirable, thought-provoking, and irritating qualities one would expect of a middle-aged woman trying her best to protect her 28-year-old manic-depressive daughter, her 26-year-old religiously observant son, her aging father, and her panic-stricken husband.

Jesse Kodama, Jared Troilo, Phyllis Kay,
Peter Van Wagner, Tony Estrella

Her husband Charles has good reason to be panic-stricken. Anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise in Paris and their son Charles, who wears a kippah, or yarmulke, has been beaten up by anti-Semitic thugs. Should the family leave Paris for Israel? Zien, as Elodie, delivers a show-stopping soliloquy on Israeli and U.S. human rights abuses over a beer with Molly (Sulla) who manages to throw in a few verbal punches herself.

Phyllis Kay, Jesse Kodama, Jared Troilo

In flashbacks to the 1940s, Lucien Salomon (Jared Troilo), Irma Salomon (Phyllis Kay), Adolphe Salomon (Peter van Wagner), and Young Pierre Salomon (Jesse Kodama) make the potential costs of staying — murder, imprisonment, the Holocaust — vividly clear. But it’s not all politics and philosophical inquiry in this show: the developing romance between Molly and Daniel adds delight and sweetness. Plenty of wisdom and hope is dispensed as well, perhaps most notably from Phyllis Kay as Irma, in a triumphant appearance from beyond the grave.

Jesse Kodama

The title is a reference to a 2015 speech following a terrorist shooting in a Kosher supermarket in Paris in which the prime minister said, “If 100,000 French people of Spanish origin were to leave, I would never say that France is no longer France. But if 100,000 Jews leave, France will no longer be France. The French Republic will be judged a failure.” The speech refers to the fact that Jews were explicitly included in the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Jared Troilo, Phyllis Kay, Tony Estrella,
Jesse Kodama, Peter Van Wagner

Harmon pulls all this off — a lesson in French history, an examination of many different relationships to Judaism, a grappling with resurgent anti-Semitism — in a nearly flawless script that never once leaves us wishing for less, even at a near three-hour running time. The production is enhanced with costuming by Alex Jaeger that confirms all our stereotypes about the French sense of style. Andrew Boyce and Christopher Akerlind provide scenic and lighting design that moves us seamlessly between 2016 and the 1940s.

The cast of Prayer for the French Republic

photos © T Charles Erickson

Prayer for the French Republic
Huntington Theatre Company
The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston
ends on October 8, 2023
for tickets, call 617-266-0800 or visit Huntington

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