By Margret Echeverria
I felt a weensy pause in my excitement to see the rumored very good production of PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC by Joshua Harmon and directed by David Cromer when I read that the show’s running time is three hours. I’m pleased to tell you that the three acts are placed just right around two intermissions. Because we become so interested in the story and we care so much about the characters, it feels like we’re binge watching three episodes of an engaging, richly produced streaming series. The acting is stellar and the comedy is perfectly placed. The blocking is kind of wtf, but the emotional impact of the piece is a powerful wake-up wallop .
The curtain comes up on the living room of Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), who is the matriarch of an upper middle class Jewish family living in Paris about a year after the Charlie Hebdo offices were stormed and twelve people were killed in a shower of gunfire. Marcelle’s brother, Patrick (Anthony Edwards), narrates his family history weaving through time between WWII and this summer of 2016 . In the modern furnished living room, a distant cousin, Molly (Molly Ranson), has just arrived from the United States to study French for a year. All is peaceful and jovial until Marcelle’s son, Daniel (Aria Shaghasemi) comes home bloodied by an attack on the street. The peace was an illusion. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous again to be Jewish in Paris. Yes. Again. Molly is thrust into this circumstance from the bubble of her life in the US. She struggles, fails often to speak the right words, and gets trampled in the agonizing family drama that ensues. Ranson’s performance, despite her rather weak diaphragm, endears her to us through comedy birthed in awkward moments. Molly listens to these strangers who share her blood, sifting the truth from rage and tears to find her own strength as the literal relative outsider. I’m disappointed that her character disappears at the end without much ceremony. I wonder if this is because the love discovered between Molly and Daniel is too much for our modern sensibilities to accept. My date whispered more than once in my ear, They’re cousins! To which I whispered back, It’s distant!
Patrick presents us with his grandparents – cousins – who miraculously survived as Jews in Paris through the entire second world war (cousins married all the time back then). Irma (Nancy Robinette) and Adolphe (Daniel Oreskes) materialize before us steeped in love and grief eating rationed bread and butter in the apartment now strategically darkened against occupied Paris. Robinette gives us the silent endurance of a mother whose children and grandchildren were torn from her by Nazis and she has no idea what has happened to them. Aware of her need to be soothed, Oreskes is the husband who paints with Harmon’s poetic words fantastical stories of where their loved ones are and how they are heroically surviving far away. The tension between this couple with only each other for company is so realistic, I feel like I know them personally. The air thickens as fate returns their son, Lucien (Ari Brand) and grandson, Pierre (Ethan Haberfield), to them at the end of the war. The younger men focus on the future and their father protects them from Irma’s inquiries about losses in Poland. I hold my breath when the secrets are finally torn out of their hiding places and the information is almost too much to bear. Robinette is truly exquisite in her utterly human expression of the absurdity of war and its aftermath.
The cracker jack of this show is Daniel’s sister, Elodie (Francis Benhamou), whose inner fire is stoked by her brother’s dilemma. Does he hide being Jewish to bring peace to his family who worry about him bringing negative attention to himself that often goes violent? Should he not live in
Paris? Or even in France? Should more Jews consider making Israel their home? Shaghasemi is beautifully tender and Benhamou is the perfect feisty counterbalance to her sibling. Benhamou is the girl at the party who is always going to know more than you do about the history of her people. She acts with her whole body. Even her hair is in the game telling the story of the messy cacophony of intelligence in her head and then her organized resolve to not be deterred by ignorance. I want her to be my friend and in my corner. And I loved the sweet touch of the aged Pierre (Richard Masur), who is the dear grand dad in her corner. Masur steals his only scene and I don’t mind at all.
This is a really really good story about a family shaken to its core by relentless anti-semitism when all they want to do is love one another and maybe enjoy some music once in a while. Oh yeah; the blocking feels weird, but I’ll give you a tip: Cromer is pressing your nose against a window and when you are peering into a room, sometimes a person’s back is turned to you. I’ve never experienced a show in a precenium setting that felt this close to me. I was awake for every word.
WITH Betsy Aidem (Marcelle), Ari Brand (Lucien), Molly Ranson (Molly), Nancy Robinette (Irma), Francis Benhamou (Elodie), Anthony Edwards (Patrick), Aria Shahghasemi (Daniel), Ethan Haberfield (Young Pierre), Richard Masur (Pierre), Nael Nacer (Charles), Daniel Oreskes (Adolphe)
Through February 19, 2024. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street, New York, NY. Tickets here. (212) 239-6200. Run time 3 hours with two ten minute intermissions.