Reviews

Review: Prayer for the French Republic and a One-Way Ticket to Israel

Joshua Harmon’s play about antisemitism in Europe bows on Broadway.

Richard Masur and Aria Shahghasemi appear in Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, directed by David Cromer, for MTC at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

“Only when the Jews, forming the majority in Palestine, showed themselves tolerant, were they shown more toleration in all other countries.” That line appears in Altneuland, Theodor Herzl’s 1902 novel, which envisions a futuristic majority-Jewish state in the Levant. This foundational text of Zionism is chock-full of wildly optimistic predictions about how Jews will be hailed as redeemers of an underdeveloped land, how they will respect the preexisting inhabitants of Palestine as equals, how Jewish voters will steadfastly reject ethno-nationalism in their pluralistic new society, and how this enlightenment will reflect positively on Jews everywhere, raising their esteem worldwide. Those of us living in 2024 know that something very different has played out in the 75 years since the formation of the state of Israel.

Within the first 10 minutes of Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic (now making its Broadway debut with Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre) a man wearing a kippah appears onstage, bloodied from an attack on the streets of Paris. This is Daniel (the effortlessly charming Aria Shahghasemi), and this isn’t the first time he’s been assaulted for being visibly Jewish. His mother’s family, the Salomons, have lived in France for a millennium. His father’s side, the Benhamous, are more recent arrivals from Algeria and understand all too well how anti-Israel sentiment curdles into the violent antisemitism. France, a country that is similarly driven by lofty ideals like its vaunted laïcité, has been a refuge for them. But Daniel’s father, Charles (Nael Nacer), thinks it is time for another exodus — this time to Israel.

Daniel’s mother, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), isn’t convinced. When Charles brings up a surge of hate crimes against French Jews, she retorts, “They’re stabbing Jews in Israel, too.” With her commanding presence and a voice capable of drowning out all opposition, Aidem plays a proud French woman asked to choose between her country and the man she vowed to stick by until death. Her completely assimilated brother, Patrick (Anthony Edwards), thinks that their father Pierre (a stern yet endearing Richard Masur) gave them an out when he married a Catholic; he is baffled that Marcelle hasn’t taken it.

Nancy Robinette and Ari Brand appear in Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, directed by David Cromer, for MTC at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Through a series of flashbacks to the 1940s, we see Marcelle and Patrick’s ancestors. Their great-grandparents Irma and Adolphe (Nancy Robinette and Daniel Oreskes, perfectly capturing the salty-sweet dynamic of an old married couple); their grandfather Lucien (Ari Brand, radiating the improbable optimism of a survivor); and young Pierre (Ethan Haberfield, saying so much with so few words). Haunted by what he has seen in a concentration camp in Poland, Pierre has very good reasons for wanting to disappear into Frenchness — but should his descendants be bound by that choice? Do they even have a choice?

In three acts, Harmon brilliantly dramatizes these questions and more through the story of one very specific yet completely recognizable Jewish family (fans of last season’s Leopoldstadt will find much to admire here). Scenes of simmering resentment imperceptibly come to a boil as family politics brush up against seismic global forces. Add to this a love affair between Daniel and his distant American cousin Molly (Molly Ranson) and you have a complex, engrossing drama about the tension between high ideals and stark reality, between the desire to live out our dreams and the imperative to survive. It’s the history of the Jewish people in a nutshell. Israel may be the reason for spiking antisemitic violence today, but what was the excuse before 1948?

“Everyone has become completely ahistorical,” kvetches Daniel’s sister Elodie, the most eloquent character in the play. In a breathtaking performance, Francis Benhamou charges each glance with electricity, calibrating every sarcastic retort for maximum sting. We hold on for dear life as she delivers an epic second-act rant to Molly (Ranson convincingly stands in for all well-meaning but cosseted American liberals) about how the Internet has given everyone the delusion of expertise: “They fancy themselves experts in everything when the only thing they have expertise in is how to waste a perfectly good life.” This is the kind of delicious invective we’ve come to expect from Harmon through plays like Admissions and Bad Jews, and he spectacularly delivers here with the help of a top-notch cast.

Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou appear in Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, directed by David Cromer, for MTC at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

Director David Cromer further enhances Harmon’s script with a beautiful production: Amith Chandrashaker’s gorgeous natural light streams in from high windows on Takeshi Kata’s set, which depicts the family apartment in Paris. A turntable elegantly navigates the transitions between contemporary scenes and the 40s, with plenty of overlap. It all gives the impression of history lingering in the background, a nagging reminder that it is practically impossible, to borrow a phrase from our vice-president, to unburden ourselves from what has been.

In my review of the 2022 off-Broadway production, I moaned that the play’s references to Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen felt dated (the major action of the play takes place in 2016 and 2017) — but I was wrong. Here we are again in 2024, facing the prospect of a second Trump administration and the rising potency of the extreme right in Europe. The events of Prayer for the French Republic take place years before the catastrophe of October 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and murdered over 1,000 people, taking 240 back to Gaza as hostages. Harmon writes his characters so authentically that I found myself wondering how the fictional Benhamous would have fared on October 7.  Yes, Europe is unsafe for Jews, but is Israel any safer?

The harmonious new society of Herzl’s dream remains elusive, but at least a majority-Jewish state survives, however imperfect. Prayer for the French Republic is a powerful reminder that a better future is only possible if you live to have a future.

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Prayer for the French Republic

Final performance: March 3, 2024