PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC Journeys To Broadway — Review


Molly Ranson, Francis Benhamou, Nael Nacer, Aria Shahghasemi, Betsy Aidem, and Anthony Edwards | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Joey Sims
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January 9, 2024 10:21 PM

When reviewing the Off-Broadway premiere of Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic back in 2022, I had trouble with the question of universality. 

Harmon’s play, set primarily in 2016, centers on a French Jewish family, the Benhamous, unsettled by rising antisemitism in Paris. Family matriarch Marcelle (Betsy Aidem) grew up secular, with a Jewish father, but converted upon marrying Charles (Nael Nacer), a Sephardic Jew whose family fled to France from Algeria. Their son Daniel (Aria Shahghasem) has lately grown closer to his faith, wearing a kippah and attending daily services. But after Daniel is jumped and beaten by strangers who call him a “fucking Jew,” a shaken Charles announces that he wants to move to Israel.

“My gut, every bone in my body, every inch of my core, is telling me the same thing,” he explains to an incredulous Marcelle: “Run.”

Two years ago, I felt uncertain about the gestures towards universality in both Harmon’s text and David Cromer’s production, which Manhattan Theatre Club now transfers to the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway. Antisemitism is an escalating issue across the globe, but was at that time (and is still today) an especially acute crisis in France. Cromer’s staging made limited efforts to evoke a French setting, while Harmon’s text seemed designed to push American audiences in particular to question just how safe they really were. But was that, I wondered, a plausible parallel?

Molly Ranson, Nael Nacer, and Aria Shahghasemi | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Today, Harmon’s play returns into far more fraught terrain. Last year, the Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel by Hamas forces killed an estimated 1,200 people – the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. In the months following, Israel’s ongoing counter-offensive has resulted in the deaths of roughly 23,000 Palestinians. 

Antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents have surged worldwide. Protesters across the United States have pushed for a ceasefire in Gaza, condemning the U.S.’s backing and financial support of the Israeli bombardment. Rising antisemitism has also been cynically deployed, in some cases, by right-wing forces with little genuine concern for Jewish safety. 

It would be a tall order to expect Prayer, a play written and programmed prior to these cascading events, to fully meet the complexity and horror of our current moment. But nor can it escape that context, arriving when it has.

Not that Harmon’s text shies away from intractable questions. Nothing goes uninterrogated here, including the validity of Charles’ fears around his family’s safety, the wisdom of fleeing to Israel, and even the largest, most impossible question: why, throughout history, the Jewish people have been made endless “wanderers,” dogged by mindless hate, century after century.

Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur, Ari Brand, and Ethan Haberfield | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Harmon does not pretend to have answers — nor any comforts, as his choice of narrator makes clear. Our unlikely guide is Marcelle’s aggressively anti-religious brother Patrick (Anthony Edwards). Patrick is a fascinatingly contradictory device. Within the action, he is snidely dismissive of Charles’ rising fears, insisting at a dinner party blow-up that they are “barely Jews,” and that Charles “brainwashed” his sister with religion. Yet in his narration, Patrick speaks sagely of Jewish persecution going back to the Crusades, drawing a line from centuries past all the way to us, here, today. 

In the show’s Off-Broadway staging, the invaluable Richard Topol played Patrick with a startling coldness. That felt in line with Harmon’s text — this is a character who, after noting the People’s Crusade of 1096 wiped out a third of France’s Jews, throws in a casual, “not too shabby!” Edwards attempts a warmer tack, a misguided approach that fights both the text and the production. Neither remotely plausible as Jewish or as a blood relative to anyone onstage, Edwards floats through this staging like an odd phantasm, utterly out of place. 

That pivotal casting error leaves Prayer without a center, but there is still heart in its individual threads. A sweet, plausible romance develops between Daniel and visiting American student Molly (Molly Ranson). As Charles, Nacer brings a gentle, soulful humor. A late night scene in which he teaches Daniel and Molly how to roll out Hanukkah donuts while recalling his family’s forced departure from Algeria is the play’s sweetest.

Its best scene remains a tense debate over Israel-Palestine between Molly and Elodie (Francis Benhamou), Daniel’s fast-talking, depressive sister. “Debate” is the wrong word, really – Elodie just talks and talks, jumping exhaustively between often contradictory arguments as Molly struggles to get a word in edgewise. Benhamou delivers a star-making turn, sharply witty and deliberately overwhelming. 

Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The bickering dynamic of the whole Benhamou clan, with a formidable Aidem at its center, always feels truthful. Cromer’s typically precise direction invariably finds the individual behind the ideas – every character seems, under his imperceptible hand, fully rounded, even as Harmon also uses them to cover as many intellectual bases as he can.

Takeshi Kata’s simple, elegant revolving set has been retained for Broadway. But Kata, Cromer, and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker have now placed over it a vast, enveloping darkness, suggestive of oncoming doom. Straining for answers under this overwhelming shadow, the bodies on stage feel powerless, tiny players caught in the sweep of events far beyond their control. 

It is a natural shift on Cromer’s part, given the larger questions that now loom over this production — and that are, at times, more than the play can bear. The events of recent months make Harmon’s dissection of antisemitism hit even harder. That the family seeks refuge in Israel only adds, tragically, to Harmon’s larger point around cycles of antisemitic violence following Jews wherever they turn. 

Yet while Harmon does nod towards a more universal meaning to “never again,” when Patrick notes at the play’s conclusion that he is “rooting for all the wanderers of the world,” Prayer does not ultimately have room to carry the horrors in Gaza alongside more specifically Jewish concerns. You might argue that’s not what this play is about — but how can we leave it outside? It is hard not to feel discomfort in abstractly pondering “Could it happen here?” when we see, right now, what is happening there. 

The heart of Prayer lies in, above all else, the search for safety, for peace, and for comfort. Prayer bitterly reminds us that all of this has happened before, and most likely will again. In that sense, its timing remains sadly perfect.

Prayer for the French Republic is now in performance at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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