Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic is a very good play about anti-Semitism that left me glumly wishing it were great. Set mostly in 2016-17 Paris, it tells the story of a middle-class Jewish family, living in France for 5 generations, who feel threatened enough by rising anti-Jewish violence that they decide to emigrate to Israel. The play was produced by MTC in 2022 (unseen by me), won several awards, and has now re-opened on Broadway. You can easily understand why MTC brought it back. The acting is splendid in David Cromer’s lucid production. And last year, when the current Broadway season was planned, Trump’s cozy dinner with Jew-baiting Ye (a.k.a. Kanye West) and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes was a fresh outrage, the Tree of Life shooter was tried and convicted, and Fox News regularly fed fires of hatred with dog whistles about “globalists,” backstabbing bankers, and the perfidious entertainment industry. Harmon’s tale must have seemed like a perfect election-year choice.

Then came October 7—first, the Hamas atrocities, then the horrifying destruction in Gaza. Since the fall, everything Jewish and Israeli in the arts has had to be absorbed into the context of a new war, and that shift inevitably alters the emotional ground of Harmon’s play, affecting its impact. The story turns on tense family arguments about matters like assimilation and national identity that seem, well, less pressing now. Numerous reviews 2 years ago described these debates as sharp, brassy, and cheekily topical; now they have an argumentative air and often lack snap. The play is 3 hours long and highlights several obsessed and loquacious characters clearly meant to amuse and fascinate as well as irritate, who now shade into the windy and overwrought. This noble, well-meaning play, with its moving climax and quotable, set-piece monologues about the long history of Jew-hatred, is being squeezed by the news in ways that don’t flatter it.

Harmon is at his best in the specific, contemporary family story, not the play’s flashbacks to the grandparent generation in 1944-46 or in the tirades that feel like strained efforts at epic sweep. The Benhamou family—Charles a physician (Nael Nacer), Marcelle a psychiatrist (Betsy Aidem)—are welcoming a young American named Molly (Molly Ranson), their distant cousin on a college-year abroad, to their Paris home when their son, 26-year-old Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), suddenly staggers in with a bloodied head. He’s been attacked by anonymous thugs whose slurs affirm that they targeted him for wearing a yarmulke. He refuses to call the police and also rebuffs his parents’ pleas to cover his kippa with a baseball cap. His biopolar, 28-year-old sister Elodie (Francis Benhamou—the name parallel a coincidence) jumps to his defense seemingly out of pure contentiousness: “Don’t you think it’s a problem, that a person can’t go outside wearing something on his head for fear of being attacked? . . . Oh so Daniel’s asking for it now? Is that seriously your argument?”

I wish Harmon had stuck with this generational confrontation around the theme of laïcité-defiance. Instead of developing that conflict, though, he makes the play’s young people into rather unimpressive, peripheral players—flotsam rather than waves in the dramatic storm. Elodie proves to be a motormouth blurter of sundry opinions who tries to shame Molly for knee-jerk leftist naivete even though her own stridently pro-Israel points are all over the logical map and her non-conformist, sleep-till-noon, slacker demeanor doesn’t jibe with them at all. Hunky, guitar-playing Daniel, for his part, becomes Molly’s passing love interest, his sole, lame explanation for his out-of-the-blue religiosity a dew-eyed story about snow flurries making him feel “grateful to be alive”: “I wanted to say thank you, but who do you thank for the snow? So I went to synagogue.”

Prayer for the French Republic by Joshua Harmon, directed by David Cromer, at MTC-Samuel J Friedman Theatre. Photos: Jeremy Daniel.

The elders make all the important decisions that push the exile story forward. I had to wonder: in what present-day Western family does that really happen? Marcelle refuses at first when Charles comes home one day saying he “can’t do this anymore.” Armed guards at the synagogue, dirty looks at Daniel on the street, “They’re stabbing Jews in Strasbourg. They’re stabbing Jews in Marseille”—he feels unsafe and wants to move. Meanwhile, Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Anthony Edwards), who doubles as the play’s narrator, explains the family history of secularism: their forefathers founded a successful piano company in 1855, their grandparents arbitrarily survived the Nazi occupation in their own Paris apartment (this story staged in the flashback scenes). It seems like the plot is headed for a divorce when Marcelle abruptly changes her mind—due to her shock at a home-invasion murder of a Jewish woman in 2017—and soon the whole family is packing for Israel after a terrible brother-sister blowup.

Reading over what I’ve written here, I fear it may sound harsher than my true feelings. I was indeed moved by several scenes in Prayer for the French Republic, including the rueful farewell when the family sings the “Marseillaise” together around their soon-to-be-abandoned heirloom piano. I do recognize that the story’s warning about the flimsiness of Jews’s security in even tolerant modern societies is all too relevant to today’s America (which Elodie acknowledges, then denies, then acknowledges again). The notes of Jewish pride the play sounds also touch me, and matter. Several people behind me shouted “Whoah!” after Harmon’s final set-speech about Jew-hatred through the ages, and I relished their rush. As a theater person, though, I also feel bound to point out that this is not a moment when such speeches can resonate at full power. The historian Robert Wistrich once called anti-Semitism the world’s “longest hatred.” One unfortunate facet of that longevity is that all our shorter hatreds—including, let’s admit, those in the hearts of Jews themselves—continually rear up and make things worse.

There are certain moments when the theater needs to tap all the flexibility it can muster to respond to a quickly changing environment, and this play demonstrates that we’re in one now. Flexibility—which is always difficult—is supposed to be one of theater’s prime advantages over recorded media, and the current crisis really called for it in this case. Harmon did make script adjustments for this Broadway run—cutting some Trump-era references, for instance—but the Israel-Hamas war demanded more. New thinking was needed about what the contemporary characters in a play like this would actually say and do, should say and do on a 2024 stage.

Several years ago, the playwright Antoinette Nwandu radically and effectively revised the ending of her extraordinary play Pass Over in response to George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the pandemic. To me, that’s the depth of re-thinking Prayer for the French Republic needs to make a ringing artistic statement now. The real world, around just these issues, is too much crying out for acknowledgement.


This article appeared in TheaterMatters on January 14, 2024, and has been reposted with permission. To read the original article, click here.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Jonathan Kalb.

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