The In-Person Theatre Review: MTC’s Prayer for the French Republic
“What is the beginning of a family?” This wise and thought-provoking question is posed in the first few moments of Manhattan Theatre Club‘s ambitious new play, Prayer for the French Republic currently playing at New York City Center Stage 1 (and just recently extended to March 27th, 2022). The question draws us in, and starts the deep dive, with a familial grand piano sitting center stage, focusing our attention on the instrument that binds them. History begins to revolve around that magnificent piece like shadows and ghosts waiting for their entrance, sometimes literally clumsy, while other times with the most effective ease.
Clocking in at an impressively brave three-plus hours, this multi-generational tale of a persecuted Jewish family living in Paris is, in general, a captivating triumph, one worthy of your attention and patience. As written by Joshua Harmon (Significant Other, Admissions, Skintight), the clarity fades in and out but never disappoints. The play spins forward with an intelligent confidence, worthy of its characters and its creators, shifting its glance back and forth in time, finding compassionate and complex space between the Benhamou family living in modern-day Paris, circa 2016-17 and an earlier generation of the wife’s family, the Salomons, living in the same apartment, with that same familial-inscribed piano in 1944-46. But the hours living with these two families fly by, without interference, finding power and passion in the way each unpacks their generational trauma and unleashes their sometimes didactic complex arguments.
Winding their experiences together in an epic formulation, the exceptional writing and acting within brings us to the heart of Paris and the societal problems that are being experienced in that beautiful city and throughout the world. Only one character, an old and young Pierre, finds his way into both stories, but the energy of each group pulls on threads of acknowledgment that turn this heady exploration into captivating art. Directed with a simplistic loyalty to character and their complexities by David Cromer (Broadway’s The Sound Inside), Prayer for the French Republic digs into a century of turbulence, folded in, revolving around, and connected internally to this one Jewish family. The shock is its simple effective engagement, even when the writing sometimes overwhelms us with detail and history, with an almost manic insistence to be heard and digested.
They’re “old people, leave them alone.” It’s that sentiment that keeps this family alive, and one we can’t ignore. The framework inside that statement can’t help but make us feel emotionally connected to this elderly couple, beautifully portrayed by Nancy Robinette (Broadway’s The Curious Incident…) and Kenneth Tigar (PR’s The Revolving Cycles). They sit patiently at the table, strewn with books and papers, hiding out in their apartment trying to survive the war and keep it from coming through the closed door into the apartment. They miss their existence and their family, not surprisingly but with heartfelt deepness. Then, all of a sudden, they are reunited with their newly liberated son, played engagingly by Ari Brand (Mint’s The Lucky One), and their quiet grandson, Pierre Salomon, tenderly portrayed by Peyton Lusk (LCT/Broadway’s Falsettos) whose only wish is to have a croissant. The later American Molly would totally get behind that request.
Besides that croissant and that grand piano, the grandson is the main generational link that ties these characters to the modern-day Benhamou family. That family lives elegantly in Paris, in that same apartment, but with a whole different air and religious energy. It’s posh in a way, yet comfortable, epitomized by the well-spoken and often slightly off-putting matriarch of the family, Marcelle, the psychiatrist mother played to stern precise perfection by Betsy Aidem (Broadway’s All the Way). Aidem has a way of formulating her responses that sometimes makes her difficult to like, but impossible not to care about and connect to. The family, in general, is a complicated series of sharp-edged connections, most specifically between mother and daughter, the psychologically compromised Elodie, played by a fiery and fantastic Francis Benhamou (PH’s The Profane). Her depression and intellectual passion push on the family’s edges until they almost snap. Almost. Until they surprisingly bind them together.
Then, unannounced through the door walks a tension that only worsens the arrangement throughout, as the family is sent reeling in on itself due to the shocking violence that has been brought upon their son, Daniel, charismatically portrayed by Yair Ben-Dor (“WeCrashed“). Daniel has become the victim of a hate crime, an anti-Semitic attack that is a terribly upsetting signal to the family. This violence is sadly and horrifically occurring with much more frequency and meaning in Paris, across Western Europe, and the United States. The resulting energy is surprising, in a way, to the Benhamou family, in some pretty determined and unique ways. The incident leads the father, elegantly portrayed by Jeff Seymour (“The Eleventh Hour“) to proclaim, quite defiantly, that he wants the family to move to Israel, because Paris, he believes, and maybe Western Europe in general, is no longer a place of safety and sanctuary, but one filled with the threat of violence and increasing hate.
The paralleled shared spaces of what was happening in Europe in those specific war-torn years in the mid-1940s and in the years 2016 and 2017 that are presented here, when that Orange Monster was elected and Marine Le Pen was trying (unsuccessfully, thank god) to become the President of France, add specificity to the difficult engagement and trauma this family is going through. This is highlighted, clearly and specifically when a distant relative from America, Molly, played by Molly Ranson (MTC’s Linda), shows up for a visit while studying abroad and becomes involved, most intimately, in the interpersonal dynamics of the family.
It’s a bit structural, this addition, bringing a character in so French politics and viewpoints can be explained to her, and to show her somewhat naive understanding of the world seen from Manhattan. It also, in turn, assists and unpacks the details to any audience member who doesn’t quite know who Marine Le Pen is or what all the fuss was about. It’s a forced framework, this visitor, but one that delivers some dynamics to the Benhamous children that register and rattle forth some substantial and significant deconstructions. By her mere presence, she ushers forth an opportunity for Benhamou’s Elodie to lecture the young American with an impressive multi-page monologue about the intricate landscape and history of being a Jew in Europe, as opposed to being a Jew in America. It is a complex talk, worthy of its space in the play and handled with an emotional rawness that leaves you breathing hard with stuttered affirmation, even as it feels somewhat forced and unnaturally didactic.
Talking and debating through the multi-generational space, designed with care by scenic designer Takeshi Kata (Broadway’s Clyde’s), with careful costuming by Sarah Laux (Broadway’s The Band’s Visit), a simplistic lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker (Soho Rep’s Fairview), and solid sound by Lee Kinney (MTC’s Morning Sun) and composer Daniel Kluger (Broadway’s Oklahoma!), feels like we are sitting inside a fevered upset brain trying its hardest to unpack a brutal beating and a whole encyclopedia of generational trauma. But it holds us tight in its upset arms, wanting to run and not wanting to leave. The bigger umbrella theme of escaping while there is still time is one that hits home, as many of us that sit outside of the privileged class looked at the Trump years as a Handmaid’s Tale warning of what might be on its way in. Wondering when we should leave, skip town and country while the leaving is still good and possible.
It still feels fraught, even with the Biden win, because the unnerving unveiling of anti-Semitic hate and white supremacy in America and the World just keeps growing and solidifying right before our eyes. (I mean I just read an article about a white supremacy organization holding a conference in a Marriott Hotel in Florida across town from a GOP gathering, sharing some speakers and attendees. With confident pride that they are a part of a larger movement embraced by many in the GOP.) Many of us contemplated in the modern years presented in Prayer for the French Republic the complex idea: What would we do if things started getting out of hand, and when would ‘waiting and seeing’ end up being the wrong too-late decision? Looking back and into this play, this is the shocking yet very real question asked, and the answer, or at least the half answer, is a heavy one to hold.
The play pushes forward, sometimes led by Richard Topol (Broadway’s Indecent) as Marcelle’s brother, who is basically our narrator and the one who puts forth that initial question. He doesn’t understand the impulse to leave, especially as he doesn’t hold tight to the religious beliefs that his sister does. His value system and his mistrust in Marcelle’s religious husband resonate but also remind us of people who tell others to not be so proud or showy of who you are. “Don’t dress that way, you’re drawing unneeded attention to yourself”. “Stay in the closet and stop causing trouble for yourself”. This is basically one of the ideas put forth for debate here. It’s a fascinating contradiction, that finds weight in its history. The writing does become slightly didactic at certain points with characters sounding more like professors than authentic family members under stress, but the overall outcome connects. Particularly so when the lineage connector, Pierre Saloman; Marcelle and Patrick’s elderly father, played beautifully by the engaging Pierre Epstein (Broadway’s Plenty – I believe, the first Broadway show I ever saw) steps onto the stage, holding hands with his younger self (Lusk) and completing the circle. The moment, gathered around that eternal piano unearths an emotional historical context that feels ever so real and historically heavy.
Harmon and Cromer work some theatrical magic together, navigating a delicate balance between time frames and the people within, with the actors delineating themselves beautifully. The actors speak English throughout, even though we understand that they are actually speaking French to one another. Ranson as the American Molly does a beautiful job finding her way through, giving the impression of an English person trying to speak French, and not always getting it right or as smooth as she wanted. The attention to such details is just one of the many reasons Prayer for the French Republic delivers the weight of history so engagingly, pulling apart the chaotic and frightening world, and giving us a framework to hopefully unpack its density with a bit more love, care, and insight.