By Tulis McCall
It’s not often I leave the theatre after sitting through 3 hours and 15 minutes of a show, and my overriding thought is, “Wow. That was something!” — in a good way. That was exactly what both my friend and I were thinking after seeing “Prayer for the French Republic” at Manhattan Theatre Club’s New York City Center Stage.
Joshua Harmon has created an expansive tale that stretches over 5 generations. He picks an arbitrary (not so much) date to begin the tale, for one can never say when a family starts. Patrick Salomon (Richard Topol) tells us his family has been in Paris (thankfully no one uses French accents in this piece) for over 1,000 years. So he picks now – 2016-2017. Both the American and French elections will serve as backdrop for the story.
The Salomon family has maintained piano sales showrooms for decades. Pianos used to be a sign of status, but no more. Still his father Pierre (Pierre Epstein) goes every day to open the doors and wait for customers. His sister Marcelle (Betsy Aidem) is a psychiatrist turned professor and department head. Her husband Charles (Jeff Seymour), an Algerian immigrant, has a medical practice of his own. Their two children still live at home. Elodie (Francis Benhamou) has a self-confessed mental health problem that is never clarified, although bi-polar does come to mind. She is a bloated package of opinions and needs only the slighted pin prick to spray them all over the room and everyone in it. Her brother Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) is a math teacher at a private Jewish school and wears a kippah (yarmulke). This is not a danger at home, but the antisemitic violence (the 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo Magazine and the kosher supermarket are still fresh memories) feels like it is everywhere in the streets. As a matter of fact Daniel has just returned home with a bloody face from a beating. Into this fractious collection comes Molly (Molly Ranson) a distant cousin from the States who is doing a school year in France. She is the perfect tinder to set the flames going.
Once the present is set we slide to the 1944-1946 side of the equation. Irma and Adolph Salomon (Nancy Robinette and Kenneth Tigar) are living alone and unharmed in their Paris apartment. They think about their children whose whereabouts are unknown. They have no radio, no mail, no communication. In a scene of shattering tenderness Tigar, taking pity on his wife’s attempts at hope, paints her a wisp of a tale. The children are safe in the mountains. The grand children are studying. There is a music school nearby which provides ample work for the piano tuners. It is, in a word, Heaven. A story spun to lift the darkness from their lonely apartment and their buttered bread.
For the duration of the play we are guided (with the aide of a spectacular set by Takeshi Kata) back and forth in time. There are a few logistical glitches here and there as well as puzzling gaps in the narrative, but these pass and we are back with this family in a blink. Harmon does not suffer fools, nor does the excellent director David Cromer. We must pay attention, and these fine actors make that task a pleasant one indeed.
On each end of the family tale, antisemitism dons new sets of clothes and strikes over and over again.
With the return of one son and a grandson, the Salomons of WWII must make a stand. With the election of Donald Trump and the threat of Marine Le Pen of the National Party, the Salomons of today must also make a stand. Harmon threads this needle without a shred of sentimentality and leaves us free to embrace the many facets of this tale.
This is an ongoing story whether we choose to pay attention to it or not.
PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC by Joshua Harmon, directed by David Cromer
WITH Betsy Aidem, Yair Ben-Dor, Francis Benhamou, Ari Brand, Pierre Epstein, Peyton Lusk, Molly Ranson, Nancy Robinette, Jeff Seymour, Kenneth Tigar, and Richard Topol.
The show’s creative team includes Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Sarah Laux (costume design), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting design)
To ensure the health and safety of everyone, artists, crew, staff, and audience members (adults and children) must provide proof of full Covid-19 vaccination and approved masks must be worn by all audience members, staff, and crew.
Manhattan Theatre Club at MTC at New York City Center – Stage I (131 West 55th Street). TICKETS HERE