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Prayer for the French Republic

A group of people standing around a piano

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Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur, Ari Brand, Ethan Haberfield (Photo: Jeremy Daniels)

Prayer for the French Republic

By David Schultz


Complex generational stories are a dime a dozen. Prayer for the French Republic, penned by Joshua Harmon (Significant Other, Bad Jews), is the exception. This play, currently running at Manhattan Theatre Club s Friedman Theater, offers the tale of multiple generations of a Jewish family and their experience of anti-Semitism in France, with withering accuracy.

Taking place in two timeframes (2016-2017 and 1944-1946), this sweeping saga toggles from current day into the past. Eerie and haunting, with characters from both eras speaking to each other occasionally breaking the fourth wall, Prayer for the French Republic encapsulates the ongoing horrors that plague the Jewish people over the centuries and today.

Young, na ve Molly (Molly Ranson), an American college student, visits her distant cousin, Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), a psychiatrist turned professor, and her family in Paris. Quiet at first, Molly is a Jew who finds solace in the vague idea of being part of the tribe, but actually apart from it, Jewish in name only.

In the opening scene, Marcelle regales the young girl with the very French, Jewish family history that goes back generations -- her family, The Saloman tribe, has been living in Paris for over 1,000 years. The Salomans sold pianos for decades, though the business has slowed down greatly in recent years. The family survived the war years, and miraculously a few, not all, survived the Holocaust. The scars run deep. But Marcelle is resilient and proudly French to her core.

With eager eyes and ears, young Molly is spending a year studying in France. Falling in love with Parisian croissants may be a bit of a clich , but Molly s innocence will be shattered soon enough as the family unravels in front of her.

A person sitting in a chair

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Aria Shahghasemi (Photo: Jeremy Daniels)


The tone changes as soon as Marcelle s mid-twenties son Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi)) blasts through their front door. He has been beaten and roughed up, with bloodied face and hands. Thugs beat him a few blocks from home because he was wearing his yarmulke and returning from his teaching position at the local yeshiva. He is adamant about wearing his yarmulke, and not hiding it under a baseball cap as his parents have urged him to do.

His father Charles (Nael Nacer) is well aware of the turning tide of anti-Semitism that has increased exponentially in their homeland. An Algerian immigrant, Charles 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 of France, he is shattered, with thoughts of escape yet again, this time, to Israel.

Two women sitting at a table

Description automatically generatedMolly Ranson, Francis Benhamou (Photo: Jeremy Daniels)

Daniel s slightly disturbed but brilliant, moody, manic-depressive sister Elodie (Francis Benhamou) sulks around the Salomans apartment, but in a brilliant, withering monologue directed at the surprised Molly, she dives into a 17-minute screed about Israel, Judaism, the PLO, and more. With the ongoing seeds 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.

A person in a dress standing on a stage

Description automatically generatedNancy Robinette (Photo: Jeremy Daniels)

Several times during the three-hour play, the focus shifts to the 1944-1946 timeframe, showing how the earlier clan survived the Second World War. (Takeshi Kata s moody scenic design and Amith Chandrashaker s superb lighting make great use of the theater s rotating stage to effect these shifts). Marcelle s great-grandparents (Daniel Oreskes and Nancy Robinette) never left their closed, curtained Paris apartment for the duration. In emotional, poignant scenes they wait to reunite with family members, and they do to some extent. Their son Lucien (Ari Brand) returns with their grandson Pierre (Ethan Haberfield). Both are gaunt and haunted, having barely survived the horrors of Auschwitz, but other family members have perished.

A person standing next to a piano

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Anthony Edwards (Photo: Jeremy Daniels)

Marcelle s brother, Patrick (Anthony Edwards) narrates the evening, serving as family historian and guide. Patrick occasionally speaks to the ghostly relatives from the wartime with urgent questions that can never be fully answered. Director David Cromer smoothly merges past and present with these interchanging scenes.

Recent, topical, and horrific anti-Semitic atrocities are placed in context with ever increasing intensity as the evening progresses. The theme of leaving and going somewhere safe mingles 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 beg for answers; opposing viewpoints ricochet back and forth.

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 Marseillaise, the French national anthem.

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


Prayer for the French Republic

At the Samuel J. Friedman Theater

261 W 47th St

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes; two intermissions

Through March 3

Performances: Tues (7pm), Wed (1&7), Thurs (7pm), Fri (8pm), Sat (2&8), Sun (2pm)