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Anthony Edwards, Prayer for the French Republic
Anthony Edwards in 'Prayer for the French Republic, courtesy of Jeremy Daniel

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Prayer for the French Republic’ – Profound, Timely

Prayer for the French Republic had its world premiere Off Broadway almost two years before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. The drama with comedic elements by Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews) presented by Manhattan Theatre Club extended a number of times. Well-received, it garnered many nominations and won multiple Off Broadway awards.

In its transfer to Broadway, the three-hour production (with two intermissions) still feels timely, profound and ironic. Currently at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre until February 18th, the play elements has had a few minor script updates and new additions to the cast. Directed by David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), it reverberates with power and poignant truths. Indeed, the questions and themes it posits seem more trenchant and relevant than ever.

Patrick Salomon as Narrator

Harmon establishes narrator Patrick Salomon (the superb Anthony Edwards) as driver of the play’s momentum and overseer of the complex issues and themes that arise. Patrick’s sister Marcelle (the vibrant Betsy Aidem), who embraced Judaism after she married her Jewish Algerian husband, has growing fears about her family’s Jewish identity in France. As her concerns intensify, questions arise about whether she should leave their elderly father to Patrick’s care and go to Israel with her family to feel safe.

Ironically, Patrick and Marcelle’s parents (Catholic mother, Jewish father) raised them as non-observant Jews. Thus, Patrick finds it difficult to believe his Francophile sister would leave because of her husband’s fear of antisemitism. Unsettled, Patrick considers the events that brought him and his sister to this turning point in their lives.

A Meditation on a Family’s History in France

Cobbling together scenes from his memory and imagination, Patrick presents a meditation on his family’s recent history in France. Attempting to redefine what being a Jew in France means, he narrates the saga of their Parisian Jewish identity and magnifies it in light of the conundrum Jews have historically confronted throughout the ages. To survive do they assimilate, or do they risk the danger of standing apart as they embrace their religious beliefs? Do they renounce their faith, or convert to Christianity to gain security? Why must they fear actively observing Jewish traditions? Why must an active show of their faith subject them to attacks and even murder?

Patrick’s reflects on the five generations of Salomons who made and sold Salomon pianos in Paris. Shifting in flashback between 2016-2017 and 1944-1946, set in two different Parisian apartments, Patrick rationalizes Marcelle’s growing apprehensions. To gain perspective, he contrasts her reactions with his speculations about the experiences of his Jewish great-grandparents, who miraculously lived and survived in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Should he take Marcelle’s “paranoia” to heart when his ancestors survived a devastating time though other family lost their lives in Auschwitz?

Expert Scenic Design Seamlessly Merges Past and Present

With help from expert scenic designer Takeshi Kata, whose revolving stage and set design merges past and present, Patrick connects us with the ancestral ghosts from the past. These include his great-grand parents, Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolph Salomon (Daniel Oreskes), their son, his grandfather, Lucien (Ari Brand), and Lucien’s son, his father, Young Pierre (Ethan Haberfield). Seamlessly, Patrick moves from past to the present in his memory and imagination. In the present we meet his sister’s family, and his father Pierre, now in his 80s. His sister’s family includes husband Charles (Nael Nacer), and their adult children, Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi) and Elodie (Francis Benhamou).

After Patrick introduces us to Marcelle and cousin Molly (Molly Ranson), an American studying in France, events unfold that lead up to his sister’s change of heart about Paris. First, Muslims attack son Daniel who returns home bloodied. The family wrangles about how to respond. Marcelle warned Daniel to wear his kippah under a baseball cap so as not to attract unwanted attention, but he ignored her. Then, after the attack, he refuses to go to the police, which he says will exacerbate the situation.

Betsy Aidem, Nael Nacer in Prayer for the French Republic (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Betsy Aidem, Nael Nacer in Prayer for the French Republic (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

A Sense of Security in Paris, Forever Upended

Though Daniel dismisses the attack, and the arguments dissolve into a Shabbat prayer, his bloody face upends his father’s sense of security. The situation worsens when Charles and Daniel attend synagogue and feel afraid walking home. Ironically, France, the first country in Europe in the modern age to accept Jews into its culture in 1791, shines with egalitarianism. For 200 years French rabbis exalted France in their prayers. We hear a prayer in voiceover in the synagogue: “May France enjoy a lasting peace and preserve her glorious rank among the nations.” The Jewish congregants respond “Amen.”

Despite the uncertainty of Jewish solidarity with France (see the Dreyfus affair, Vichy collaboration, and periodic hate crimes), Jewish identity remains tightly linked to the French state. However, in recent years, attacks against Jews have increased and 8,000 have left for Israel. On the other hand, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls insists that if France loses its Jews, it will no longer remain France. In other words, Valls “has their backs.”

Patrick’s Family Survived in France for 1,000 Years as Jews

Somehow, over 1,000 years Patrick’s family avoided the few brutal massacres that mostly everyone forgot. With a flourish that Anthony Edwards accomplishes beautifully, we hear of one particularly heinous massacre of hundreds of Jews known as the People’s Crusade fostered by Peter the Hermit. Yet, his family’s ancestors survived and thrived in the first European country that emancipated its Jews and heavily relied on Jewish cultural contributions.

As Patrick shifts his narration to the past, we see Irma and Adolph welcoming son Lucien and grandson Pierre home from Auschwitz, which they survived though Lucien’s sister and nieces didn’t. Initially, Lucien and Pierre refuse to discuss what happened, though Irma presses them. Clearly, both experienced horrific trauma. Like others who survived, they couldn’t dwell on the horrors if they wanted to get to the next day. Interestingly, Patrick eventually reveals that Auschwitz changed his father Pierre’s life and religious intent forever: To preserve his family, Pierre married a Catholic woman. Thus, Patrick and Marcelle remained non-observant Jews – until Marcelle married Charles.

Fear of Antisemitic Attacks

Meanwhile, Charles and Daniel leave for Israel. Charles insists he will move there because Israel accepts their identity without question, without persecution. Even though Patrick points out that safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere in the world, Francophile Marcelle explains her marriage may trump their successful careers and love of French culture.

When Charles and Daniel return from Israel, having checked out the housing and career situation, a resigned Charles leaves their immigration decision up to Marcelle. In the midst of the worsening antisemitism, and as fuel for it, daughter Elodie insists at a family seder that France might elect Marine Le Pen, a fascist, far-right Nazi sympathizer. Patrick argues that Le Pen will not win any election, but Elodie references the possibility that a democratic nation can elect a monster. The ancillary reference to Trump and his white supremacist, violent, xenophobic followers wafts in the air.

Patrick’s Dilemma

In the last act, Patrick’s dilemma about his family reaches its pinnacle, symbolically, ironically and explosively. With superb skill Betsy Aidem creates a dramatic moment that terrifies. This moment brings her to the edge of her loyalty to Paris and her life there. In the last moments of the play, Richard Masur as patriarch Pierre, who still minds the store that sells a few Salomon pianos a year, comments about what Marcelle’s family should do. His optimism abides throughout his wonderful speech. Yet, his final commentary surprises. And the last moments of the play, poignant and heartfelt, uplift with irony and foreboding, as the family asks questions which have no answers.

A Terrific Ensemble

The ensemble’s work excels. Anthony Edwards, with irony and understanding of the complexity of his character, shines a new clarity onto the play. Indeed, his fine efforts solidify its dramatic development and intention. As Elodie, Francis Benhamou perfects her rebellious, edgy, brilliant character, who sees every hypocrisy in Molly’s presumptuous opinions. In a smashing rant, after which Benhamou received hearty applause, we love Elodie for her brashness. Also, we appreciate that she recognizes her own hypocrisy.

Throughout their scenes, the relationship that Molly Ranson’s Molly and Aria Shahghasemi’s Daniel develop bristles with energy. Ari Brand’s Lucien and Ethan Haberfield’s Young Pierre convey the terrors of the camps in their mien and their quietude. As Irma, Nancy Robinette’s concluding soliloquy resounds with poetic beauty. Finally, we take heart at Masur’s Old Pierre, whose optimism and open-hearted encouragement of his family provide the hope that we long to experience, a hope borne out of his father Lucien’s optimism that they would survive Auschwitz.

A Successful Broadway Transfer

Cromer’s vision, adjusted for the more expansive Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, succeeds because of the set design and staging. This allows seamless shifting of time and place in Patrick’s memory and imagination. Sarah Laux’s subtle, well thought-out period costume design and J. Jared Janas’ hair and wig design feel appropriate. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting design and Daniel Kluger’s original music and sound design convey an atmosphere and tone in keeping with the play’s meditative quality. They add to the overall effect that the play is perhaps a prayer of hope to France’s democracy and culture. Surely, it would not exist without its Jews.

Prayer for the French Republic is one to see for its currency, its plaintiveness, its humor, its power. Tickets are available online.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' (https://caroleditosti.com/) 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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