In 'Prayer for the French Republic,' echoes of the past

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In 'Prayer for the French Republic,' echoes of the past
Betsy Aidem, left, and Richard Topol as siblings in “Prayer for the French Republic” at the City Center in New York on Dec. 12, 2021. Joshua Harmon’s ambitious new play toggles between a contemporary Jewish family facing growing antisemitism and their relatives during World War II. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Elisabeth Vincentelli

NEW YORK, NY.- The well of naive young Americans being schooled in life, love, politics and croissants by effortlessly worldly French people is in no danger of running dry. The latest addition to this cohort is 20-year-old Molly, a New Yorker who has just met her distant cousins in Paris.

Thankfully it is they, not sweet, passive Molly, who are the subjects of “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua Harmon’s ambitious and maddening, thought-provoking and schematic new play, directed by David Cromer at Manhattan Theater Club.

At the very beginning, the matriarch, Marcelle Salomon Benhamou (an excellent Betsy Aidem), painstakingly explains her family’s genealogical ties to Molly (Molly Ranson). They are so complicated that Marcelle has to repeat them for the young woman’s benefit, and of course the audience’s as well. Even then, it takes much of the play’s three-hour running time and some toggling between 2016-17 and 1944-46 for the connections and their consequences to sink in.

Harmon (“Significant Other,” “Admissions”) has set himself quite a challenge because Molly has arrived at a critical juncture for Marcelle; her husband, Charles (Jeff Seymour); and their 20-something children, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) and Elodie (Francis Benhamou). Daniel, who wears a kipa, has come home with a bloodied face after an antisemitic aggression. It is just another example of what Charles feels is an increasingly scary climate for Jews in France, a last straw that makes him want to move to Israel.

“It’s the suitcase, or the coffin,” he says, referring to his ancestors’ forced wandering as he may be about to emulate it. (One of the play’s most fascinating aspects, though an underexplored one, is how these characters represent two strands of French Judaism: Marcelle’s Ashkenazi ancestors have been rooted in France for centuries, while Charles’ are Sephardic Jews who lived in North Africa for generations before relocating from Algeria in the 1960s.)

The Benhamous have spirited arguments that have the urgency of life-or-death decisions: Should they stay or should they go? What does it mean to be Jewish in France? (The play’s title refers to a prayer that has been said in French synagogues since the early 19th century.)

Some of the show’s concerns, including the temptation of appeasement via assimilation — a position embodied by Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Richard Topol) — echo those Harmon explored, in a much more comic vein, in his blistering debut, “Bad Jews,” from 2012. That show was dominated by a hurricanelike character named Daphna, and she now has a marginally milder-mannered relative in Elodie, who injects volatile energy every time she opens her mouth.

Incidentally, Ranson was also in “Bad Jews” and once again finds herself on the receiving end of impassioned, and often wickedly funny, tirades and put-downs that have the biting rhythm of New York Jewish humor rather than a French sensibility. (A faux pas: The Benhamous buy croissants in an American-type cardboard box rather than the paper bags used in French boulangeries.)

All of this would be enough to pack any story, but Harmon also transports us to the end of World War II for several scenes with Marcelle and Patrick’s older relatives — their grandparents, Irma and Adolphe Salomon (Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar, both heart-wrenching), have somehow managed to survive in occupied Paris and held on to their piano store.

The two narratives progressively start bleeding into each other, with Marcelle and Patrick’s father, Pierre (Peyton Lusk in the 1940s, Pierre Epstein in the 2010s), embodying the link, both literal and metaphorical, between past and present.

Cromer, a technically astute and emotionally sensitive director, handles the back and forth as well as you might expect — he puts a stage turntable to evocative, if perhaps a little cliched, use, for example. Still, it’s not hard to feel the show’s tension slacken when we leave the Benhamous. The play’s finale that aims for the lofty and falls short, you may wonder what the future holds for them.

Additional Information:

'Prayer for the French Republic'

Through Feb. 27 at New York City Center, Manhattan; Running time: 3 hours.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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