By: David Sheward
January 19, 2024: In the two years since it premiered at Manhattan Theater Club’s City Center stage Off-Broadway in 2022, Joshua Harmon’s moving, funny and challenging play Prayer for the French Republic has become even more relevant and immediate. Now on Broadway at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Harmon’s multigenerational tale of a French Jewish family confronting endless anti-Semitism is a harsh and difficult reminder of the perilous times we live in. This is especially so since last October’s terrorist attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas and Israel’s massive military response against Gaza. Harmon addresses complex issues by creating complex characters who were more than mere animated talking points and one wonders what the characters would make of these new horrific developments.
Even without an update, Harmon has given us plenty to think about and debate. The plot turns on the conflict within the Benhamou family. When the adult son Daniel is assaulted on the street for wearing a yarmulke and in response to an alarming uptick in national anti-Jewish attacks, his father Charles wants to move the family to Israel. Charles’ wife Marcelle is against such an uprooting, arguing their lives, careers, and friends are in Paris and the Middle East isn’t exactly the safest place in the world. Daniel’s politically radical sister Elodie, recovering from a manic depressive episode, is all for the move as is Daniel, at first. Visiting American cousin Molly’s views on Palestinian human rights and her crush on Daniel complicate matters. Marcelle’s cynical brother Patrick has eschewed his Jewish background and acting as narrator, gives historical, sarcastic context.
There are also parallel scenes in 1944-6 of Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents Irma and Adolphe who manage to evade the Holocaust themselves, but must deal with the repressed survivors’ trauma of their son Lucien and grandson Pierre after the two have returned from the concentration camps.
If this seems like a lot of plot, Harmon handles the various storylines with dexterity. He perfectly balances the large sweep of history and the small details of daily existence. Arguments over discarded wineglasses and clutters of magazines mask deeper conflict or nightmare-like memories. There are scenes which go on a bit too long, as in a lengthly monologue delivered by Elodie on the state of Israel and European Jewry in general, but fortunately these are offset by sterling staging and acting. The majority of the scenes come across as riveting and real, making the three-hour running time move quickly by.
David Cromer’s sleek, streamlined production is essentially the same as it was Off-Broadway with a few cast changes. Betsy Aidem’s intense Marcelle and Francis Benhamou’s combative Elodie remain the strongest figures, creating the starkest impressions. New cast member Anthony Edwards lacks the necessary bite to make a truly effective Patrick. Nancy Robinette (original cast) and Daniel Oreskes (newcomer) feelingly convey the anguish of Irma and Adolphe. Richard Masur (new) makes a memorable cameo as the elderly Pierre. Neal Nacer (also new) gives full vent to Charles’ desperate desire to escape his country’s growing hostility towards Jews. Newcomers Aria Shahghasemi (Daniel), Ethan Haberfield (young Pierre), and returnees Ari Brand (Lucien) and Molly Ranson (Molly) also make memorable contributions.
Takeshi Kata’s flexible set design feels a trifle small on the larger Friedman stage, but still effectively convey numerous locations, aided by Amith Chandrashaker’s evocative lighting. Sarah Laux’s costumes place us in the correct eras. Prayer for the French Republic also places us in the right time frame: here and now as a tide of hatred rises over the world and asks how we will confront it.
During the holiday theater lull, I caught up with Patrick Page’s brilliant solo show All The Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Created the Villain at the tiny DR2 Theater. In a dazzling 70 minutes, this dark-voiced thespian explores the Bard’s development of his sinister characters, making them multidimensional. Page traces a line from the pure evil of symbolic figures in medieval mystery plays to the Bard’s introduction of characterization in his baddies and how they influences modern nogoodnicks such as his own Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Page illustrates his points with flavorful, deliciously malevolent performances of multilayered miscreants such as Iago, Claudius, and Edmund in King Lear. Not all the choices are obvious, such as the comically vainglorious Malvolio’s monologue of self-love in Twelfth Night and a dual of dirty deeds between Barbaras from Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus. Simon Goodwin directs with economy and Page delivers the goods on the bad guys spectacularly.
Prayer for the French Republic ****
Jan. 9—March 3. Manhattan Theater Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 W. 47th St., NYC. Running time: three hours including two intermissions. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Jeremy Daniel
All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain:****
Oct. 17—March 31. DR2 Theater, 103 E. 15th St., HYC. Running time: 70 mins. with no intermission. www.telecharge.com.
Photography: Julieta Cervantes