NEW YORK—Is there anywhere in the world that’s truly safe? This is the question at the heart of Joshua Harmon’s drama “Prayer for the French Republic,” a tale that focuses on cultural identity and the reality of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The play is now at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway City Center Stage I.
In 2016, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem) and Charles (Jeff Seymour) are a Jewish professional couple—he’s a doctor, she’s a psychiatrist—living in France with their grown son Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) and daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou). Neither Marcelle nor her brother Patrick (Richard Topol) were particularly religious as children. That changed for Marcelle when she married Charles, whose family arrived in France from Algeria when he was 4 years old.
Remembering a Difficult Past
Daniel is quite open about his Jewish heritage, something that disturbs Marcelle greatly due to the rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France. She and Patrick believe it’s best not to call attention to one’s religion. These feelings at least partly stem from what happened to their family in World War II. Offering an outsider’s perspective on this is Molly (Molly Ranson), a very distant relative from America. Molly’s seemingly uninformed point of view puts her at odds with the very opinionated and manic-depressive Elodie.
As these scenes unfold, so do events that occurred more than 70 years earlier as Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents (Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar) shelter in place during the Nazi occupation. All they can do is wait fearfully for news of family members who have been arrested by the authorities.
Linking the sequences together are observations from Patrick, who serves as the play’s narrator. The play examines the persecution of Jewish people through the ages. Topol’s matter-of-fact delivery as he imparts this information serves to give the subject extra emotional weight.
As racial tensions keep rising, Charles thinks about moving to Israel, perhaps not the safest place in the world, but one that won’t force him to hide who he is. It’s a move Marcelle opposes. She does not want to leave her home, her friends, and the life she has built. Plus, she is also the de facto caregiver for her aged father, Pierre (Pierre Epstein), one of several of her family who survived the Holocaust.
No Easy Answers
The best thing about “Prayer for the French Republic” is that it offers no easy answers (other than a family confrontation scene late in the play that comes off as too pat). The different characters try to balance the idea of leaving a place where they no longer feel welcome with refusing to be driven out of their home because of who they are. In between these two points are issues of family, belief, heritage, survival, and love—all of which must be considered when making any decision.
The question of what’s actually the correct choice and how that choice is measured against prior events is continually debated. Molly notes how “you can fight for what’s right wherever you are, but you have to be alive to do it.” She and Elodie, who delivers a powerful speech on Jewish hatred, both offer some insightful moments. This is rather ironic, as their characters are initially presented as somewhat one-dimensional. In one interaction, in which Elodie rambles from one point to the next while Molly tries to keep up—Molly’s understanding of French isn’t always perfect—is particularly hilarious.
Aidem as Marcelle is the standout of the cast. A touch overbearing when first seen, she is fiercely protective of her family and just wants to find a place where she and the people she loves can be safe. Robinette strikes a powerful note as Irma Salomon. As with Marcelle, the most important thing to her is family, and not knowing their fate is almost more than she can bear. Her determination to understand what happened forces a confrontation with those who don’t want to relive the horrors they’ve seen—or experienced.
Epstein, as Marcelle and Patrick’s 86-year-old father, effectively delivers his own opinion about what the family should do, and also explains why he still goes to work in the family piano store five days a week. Seymour is fine as the more pragmatic Charles, to whom the current situation is nothing new for his people. Ben-Dor is nicely appealing as Daniel. His scenes with Ranson have a nice flirtatious touch, with a hint of something deeper.
David Cromer’s direction is very strong as he slowly and deliberately increases the story’s underlying tension while the characters grapple with issues they’re not always ready to face. Takeshi Kata’s set is appealing and functional, and never calls attention to itself so as to take away from the story.
With a running time that doesn’t feel long at all, “Prayer for the French Republic” looks at an age-old situation, one that sadly shows no sign of being resolved anytime soon.
‘Prayer for the French Republic’
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club
131 W. 55th St., New York City
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or NYCityCenter.org
Running Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Closes: March 27
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.