Prayer for the French Republic

Reviewer's Rating

Joshua Harmon sets out to question our relationships to home, family, and religion. What would we do when we must choose between them? Would we leave our country, or our parents, or our religion in the pursuit of safety in the face of hate? What then constitutes our identity if we are willing to, or must, sacrifice one of these things? The answers lie in the importance of History: the wandering Jew must reside in History’s traditions and timely lessons.

Prayer for the French Republic begins with an awkward encounter between an American year-abroad student Molly (played by Molly Ranson) and Marcelle Benhamou (played by Betsy Aidem), her distant middle-aged French cousin. Molly, growing up in the U.S., asks Marcelle “whether she was in war” (referring to WW2). This naivety showcases Harmon’s repeated technique to mould the silly with the serious. Beneath this stupidity, we understand that Molly has lost, or moreover felt she could afford to lose, a sense of History that has deep ramifications for her identity. She does not quite know who she really is – deeply irreligious and ‘for the world’. In this way, Harmon does not set out to solely criticise French anti-Semitism, he also ridicules American individualism and its subsequent ironic lack of self. The audience tracks her transformation as Molly participates in, initially passively and then actively, the Benhamous’ decision to leave France. Her inculcation in Jewish and French culture leads her to belonging after falling in love with Marcelle’s son and Molly’s distant cousin, Daniel (played by Yair Ben-Dor).

But cutting sharply through this initial encounter, Daniel stumbles in with a bloody nose, and it transpires that he was subject to an anti-Semitic attack. This is the second violent attack on Daniel, who wears a yarmulke. And so begins the play’s predominant question: how to respond to hate. Should we hide our identity, or even escape it, or decidedly stay? A question of fight or flight. Marcelle initially demands that Daniel simply wear a baseball cap, but the family realise eventually that they cannot stay in (or continue to love) a country where the people do not accept who they are. Marcelle’s great-grandparents shadow this realisation, and we track the ramifications of their fateful decision to remain in Paris during WW2. By fluke, they evaded capture in their apartment, and are reunited with their son Lucien (played by Ari Brand) and young grandson (played by Peyton Lusk). We see, at the end of the second Act, how their family’s decision to stay led to unspeakable tragedy for the supposedly ever-optimistic father Lucien and the awfully quiet grandson Pierre. 

Here Harmon’s first lesson lies. History, as the narrator (played by Richard Topol) keenly points out, is cyclical. Whether it is hatred of the Jews or comically long-suffering husbands, we have all seen it before. Even uprooting is seen as a cliché (whether from Algeria, Paris or Egypt). This leads to the ultimate unanimous conclusion of the play and its characters. Simply, to survive as a Jew, you have to move – the choice is a “suitcase or a coffin” says Charles, Marcelle’s husband (played by Jeff Seymour). 

On occasion, Harmon rethinks: we may want to forget History and its lessons for a moment. As Lucien reports the death of his wife and daughter in the Holocaust, or the modern Benhamous’ torment over whether to stay or go, moments of music – on a piano or guitar – become needed escapes when playing out a repeated History. 

But these moments are importantly brief. Jews, even when they must uproot, are demanded to bring their history with them, true or not. Whether a fake recipe story about doughnuts on Hanukkah or frogs jumping out of the Nile, these stories, more than a piano or a Croissant, constitute the family and the tradition. 

Yet the destination for the Benhamou family is not an easy choice. Israel, where Charles can see his son walk down the street with dignity, appears the only option. Harmon tackles the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, predominantly in conversations between the complicated Elodie (played by Francis Benhamou) and Molly. The most protracted of these interchanges occurs in a bar that boasts the play’s use of a rotating floor to change the scene. But those lively conversations, however fraught, are a miracle in themselves as we compare them to the icy apartment of the marooned Irma and Adolphe (Marcelle’s grandparents played by Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar) in 1944. Harmon, irrespective of Molly’s interjections about the occupation of the West Bank, argues that Israel is the safest way to guarantee a future for the Jews. He could go further than this simple ‘negative’ argument for Israel’s existence (after all, Jewish self-determination in the homeland is also justification enough) but he is brave nonetheless to tackle a subject that is too one-sided in the world of Arts. 

The other moments of the play aim to enliven and deepen the decision of the Benhamous’ to leave through laughter and tears. With heart-wrenching scenes from the apartment to hilarious family moments aided by Elodie and Molly’s social awkwardness, this three-hour long play surprisingly zips past.

Most worrying, however, is to think that Harmon’s profoundly important questions are not being listened to. In the crowd, it seemed as if we were the only student contingent. How does one bridge the gap between generations, as the play ultimately does by crisscrossing between Daniel and Adolphe, if the young don’t bother to show up? Molly at least ventures to argue, but the current mode is not even to engage. 

On a more practical note, the theatre itself is lovely. One of the biggest off-Broadway, the Manhattan Theatre Club weds cosiness and size to accommodate a large set and cast. Be sure not to put in the theatre club on Google Maps, however, as it will direct you to their office address not the city stage (make sure you are going to 55th street). The actors, in particular Betsy Aidem and Francis Benhamou, are very strong.

Simply, Prayer For the French Republic is a great watch for any History lover. Yet, as Harmon persuasively argues, and I feel bound to agree, that should, or must, include everyone.