The well of innocent American youths taught about life, love, politics, and croissants by the world’s easygoing French is not in danger of being exhausted. The newest member to be added to the group is Molly, 20, from New York, who has just met her distant cousins in Paris.
Thankfully, it is they, not sweet, passive Molly, that are the subject of “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua HarmonThe new play is ambitious and frenetic, thought-provoking and diagrammatic, directed by David Cromer at the Manhattan Theater Club.
From the very beginning, the matriarch, Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (an excellent Betsy Aidem), meticulously explains her family’s pedigree relationship with Molly (Molly Ranson). They were so complicated that Marcelle had to repeat them for the benefit of the young girl, and of course the audience. Even then, it took most of the play’s three-hour run and some transitions between 2016-17 and 1944-46 for the connections and their aftermath to sink in.
Harmon (“Other significant,“”Admissions) has set itself a sizable challenge because Molly has arrived at a pivotal moment for Marcelle; her husband, Charles (Jeff Seymour); and their 20-year-old children, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) and Elodie (Francis Benhamou). Daniel, who was wearing a kipa, returned home with his face covered in blood after an anti-epidemic aggression. It’s just another example of what Charles feels is the increasingly frightening climate for Jews in France, one last straw that makes him want to move to Israel.
“Is it a suitcase or a coffin,” he said, referring to the fact that his ancestors were forced to wander because he might be about to imitate it. (One of the most intriguing aspects of the play, though unexplored, is how these characters represent the two bloodlines of French Judaism: Marcelle’s Ashkenazi ancestry has been rooted in France in the centuries, while Charles were Sephardic Jews who lived in North Africa for several generations before emigrating from Algeria in the 1960s.)
Benhamous has heated arguments with the urgency of life and death: Should they stay or should they go? What does it mean to be Jewish in France? (The title of the play refers to a prayer that has been said in synagogues in France since the early 19th century.)
Some of the show’s concerns, including the temptation of appeasement through assimilation – a position expressed by Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Richard Topol) – echo what Harmon has explored , in a much more comical vein, in his brilliant debut,”Bad Jews, ” Since 2012. That show is dominated by a hurricane-like character named Daphna, and she now has a slightly gentler relative in Elodie who has always channeled volatile energy. every time she opens her mouth.
Incidentally, Ranson was also in “The Bad Jew” and once again found himself in the final stages of his temper, and often cruelly humorous, funny tones and rhythms. New York Jewish humor rather than French sensibility. (A fake story: Benhamous bought his croissants in American-style cardboard boxes instead of the paper bags used in French retailers.)
All of this should be enough to pack up any story, but Harmon also brings us to the end of World War II for some scenes with Marcelle and Patrick’s elderly relatives. – Their grandparents, Irma and Adolphe Salomon (Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar, both heartbroken), somehow managed to survive in occupied Paris and keep their piano shop.
The two stories gradually begin to bleed into each other, with Marcelle and Patrick’s father, Pierre (Peyton Lusk in the 1940s, Pierre Epstein in the 2010s), demonstrating the bond, both literally and metaphorically, between past and present.
Cromer, a technically acumen and emotionally sensitive director, handles back-and-forth as well as you might expect – he sets up a theatrical turntable to evoke, if perhaps a little cliché , use for example. Still, it wasn’t hard to feel the tension of the show ease as we left Benhamous. The end of the play is so lofty and brief that you might wonder what the future holds for them.
Pray for the French Republic
Through February 27 at Downtown New York City, Manhattan; nycitycenter.org. Running time: 3 hours.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/theater/prayer-for-the-french-republic-review.html Review: In ‘Prayer for the French Republic,’ Echoes of the Past