By: Paulanne Simmons
February 15, 2022: Recently, Whoopi Goldberg of ABC’s “The View,” found herself at the center of controversy when she said, “Let’s be truthful, the Holocaust isn’t about race, it’s not. It’s about man’s inhumanity to man, that’s what it’s about.” Even someone minimally familiar with the Nazi agenda, would realize this is patently untrue. But even if Whoopi missed the class covering WWII in American History, she still could have stayed out of hot water if she’d seen Joshua Harmon’s new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Prayer for the French Republic.
The play is set in Paris, both in the present, in the home of Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (Betsy Aidem) and her husband, Charles Benhamou (Jeff Seymour), and during the Nazi occupation, in the apartment of Marcelle’s grandparents, Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar) Salomon. With the help of set designer Takeshi Kata and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, director David Cromer keeps the two times and places separate and very much together, as the Jewish family in both times faces antisemitism in ways that are discomfortingly similar.
Marcelle and Charles have two adult children who live with them, Elodie (Francis Benhamou), who suffers from bipolar disorder; and Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), who has become observant, much to the consternation of his mother, who fears wearing a yarmulke will make him a target. Marcelle’s father, Pierre (Pierre Epstein), the last of a long line of piano sellers, doesn’t appear until the last scene but is very much on everyone’s mind. The play Is narrated by Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Richard Topol), who as a non-observant Jew, manages to keep his distance from much of the drama. By now it should be clear this is a very ambitious work.
The drama begins when Molly (Molly Ranson), an American exchange student and distant Salomon cousin, arrives for the weekend. Marcelle tries twice to explain to Molly their exact relationship, but their small talk is cut short with the abrupt entrance of Charles and Daniel, who is covered with blood after an antisemitic attack.
Marcelle wants to call the police, but Daniel and Charles think she’s making too big a deal of the assault. Molly, a naïve but well-meaning liberal, is more concerned with the implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Despite their different views and backgrounds, Molly and Daniel become a couple (it’s never made clear whether they are also lovers).
Marcelle and Charles debate whether or not to move to Israel, while the younger generation debates everything else. In the second act, Elodie emphatically denounces the way Jews are treated around the world. The tirade, delivered at breakneck speed with scarcely a pause for breath, is a tour de force, but probably not necessary for the play to make its point (although Harmon surely gets a lot off his chest).
Despite a consistently excellent cast, the emotional core belongs to Aidem and Robinette, whose characters suffer in different and the same ways. Although they live decades apart, they are both Jews in difficult and dangerous times, worried about their families. Robinette is tender and long-suffering. Aidem is fiery and sarcastic. Each is worthy of the title “matriarch.”
Prayer for the French Republic sometimes has too much argument and not enough action. Often the play engages us intellectually when it should move us emotionally. But Harmon, Cromer and the fine cast keep the play moving even during the densest dialogue, so we never really feel its three hours.
At the end of the third act, Marcelle, Charles, Daniel, Elodie, even the cynical Patrick, discuss the various reasons people continue to hate Jews, despite the enormous contributions Jew have made to civilization. They do not reach a conclusion, but the discussion is certainly thought-provoking.
Perhaps Whoopi will get to a performance of Prayer for the French Republic before it closes on March 13.
Manhattan Theater Club at NY City Center Stage I, 131 W. 55th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu—Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm (check website for any schedule changes); Running time: three hours including two intermissions. $99. (212) 581-1212. www.NYCityCenter.org.
Photography: Mathew Murphy