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Prayer for the French Republic

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Prayer for the French Republic


                    By David Schultz


Searing tale of five generations of a French Jewish family


Complex generational stories are a dime a dozen. This new play superbly penned by Joshua Harmon (Significant Other, Bad Jews) is the exception. The topic and scope of anti-Semitism in France with five generations of a Jewish family is rendered with withering accuracy. This fictional family encapsulates the ongoing horrors that have plagued the Jewish people for centuries. Taking place in two timeframes (2016-2017) and (1944-1946) this sweeping saga toggles from current day into the past, occasionally breaking the fourth wall with characters from both eras speaking to each other simultaneously is both eerie and haunting.


A distant American cousin Molly (), a college student, visits her aunt with eager eyes and ears, she is studying with a year in France. Falling in love with the local croissants is rather quaint, but her innocence will be shattered soon enough as the family unravels with a mountain of didactic arguments that await in the mid portion of the play. Quiet at first, she is a Jew that finds solace in the vague idea of being part of the tribe, but actually apart from it, in name only. At a certain juncture in the play she shares her sympathy for the Palestinians and compares their situation as a sort of apartheid. She is a temporary guest of her aunt Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), a psychiatrist turned professor. In the opening scene Marcelle regales the young girl with the uber French family history that goes back generations. Her family has been living in Paris for over 1,000 years. The Saloman tribe have owned and sold pianos for decades, though the business has slowed down greatly in recent years. Her family has lived and survived through the war years, and miraculously a few survived the Holocaust, though some family members did perish. The scars run deep. But Marcelle is resilient and proudly French to her core.


The tone changes as soon as Marcelle’s mid-twenties son Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) blasts through their front door. He has been beaten and roughed up, bloodied face and hands and is shaken. The thugs beat him a few blocks from home because he was wearing his yamaka and returning from his teaching position at the local yeshiva school. He is adamant about wearing his kippah, and not hiding it under a baseball cap as his parents have urged his to do. His father Charles (Jeff Seymour) is well aware of the turning tide of anti-Semitism that has increased exponentially in their homeland. Charles, an Algerian immigrant fled his own country years ago as a child. Now with this incident and the ever-increasing tide of hate that is infiltrating his current homeland, he is shattered, with thoughts to escape yet again.


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Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou                               Photos by Matthew Murphy


Daniel’s slightly disturbed but brilliant moody manic-depressive sister Elodie (Francis Benhamou) sulks around often, but in a brilliant withering monologue she dives into a 12-minute bipolar screed to her young American relative. With the ongoing terrors of hate that are germinating within the country, France seems less safe in the modern day and Charles feels that a move to Israel might somehow save the family from more violent incidents.


At various times during the three-hour running time the play shifts to the 1944-1946 timeframe showing how the earlier clan survived the Holocaust. Marcelle’s great-grandparents (Kenneth Tigar and Nancy Robinette) never left their closed curtained Paris apartment. After various interpolated scenes they wait for the hope to reunite with family members, and they do to some extent. Their son Lucien (Ari Brand) returns with their grandson Pierre (Peyton Lusk) both are gaunt and haunted having barely survived the horrors of Auschwitz…. but other family members have perished.


Sitting in as the narrator of the evening is Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Richard Topol). He serves as the guide and historian to the family, as he occasionally speaks to the ghostly past relatives from the wartime with urgent questions that can never be fully answered. The past and present merge with smooth interchangeable scenes well directed by David Cromer. The recent topical horrific anti-Semitic atrocities are placed in context with ever increasing intensity as the evening progresses. The theme of leaving and going somewhere safe is well taken within the complex veil of sadness and regret. Where exactly is it safe for a modern-day Jew to live in peace and harmony? 


The entire cast engages and gives full life and urgency to this extremely topical play. The evening ends as the family sits huddled together struggling to determine why “they Hate Us so much”. A plethora of questions and opposing viewpoints ricochet back and forth like a tennis match. Questions begat more questions…answers are few, if at all. With a poignant wistful musical coda to the play, the playwright gathers all the generations, both living and long deceased as they stand around the family piano. Since they have been selling these magnificent musical instruments for over 150 years this scene strikes a melodic chord as the family gently sings the Les Marseilles, the French national anthem.


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The profound questions of when and where are we truly safe hangs over the entire evening. Need further proof?

Date:  February 6th, 2022 the night I attended this performance.

Quote From headline in THE TIMES OF ISRAEL February 6th. 2022

New York—The New York police’s hate crimes unit said on Saturday that it was investigating three alleged antisemitic attacks. The three incidents took place during Shabbat on Friday and Saturday in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. Two were physical assaults and one was anti-Semitic graffiti. In one attack captured by security cameras, an ultra-Orthodox man and woman were seen walking down a sidewalk on Friday night. An assailant trailed them behind a row of parked cars, then ran up behind the man and struck him in the back of the head, knocking his hat to the ground. The assailant then fled. Another alleged assault was reported in the same area on Friday night. In a third anti-Semitic incident in Williamsburg over the weekend, vandals sprayed swastikas on school buses for Jewish religious schools. The buses were clearly marked with Hebrew letters.

                                                                         "..... Attention must be paid..."


Prayer for the French Republic

Playing at New York City Center Stage 1

131 West 55th Street

(212) 581-1212

Running Thru February 27th