History is cyclical with a vengeance in “Prayer for the French Republic”

Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur are standing behind a piano and Ari Brand, and Ethan Haberfield are sitting at the piano
Prayer for the French Republic: Nancy Robinette, Daniel Oreskes, Richard Masur, Ari Brand, and Ethan Haberfield
Betsy Aidem and Nael Nacer on stage
Prayer for the French Republic: Betsy Aidem (L), Nael Nacer (R)

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as the French say. For Jews, history is cyclical with a vengeance: first, toleration by the inhabitants of wherever they’ve found a place to settle; then assimilation into their new land, followed by growing discrimination and hatred, leading finally to expulsion and/or death. Even when they are welcomed back into a land that had expelled them before, the cycle can — and has — recurred. Even in Israel, founded as a refuge after the horrors of the Holocaust, they are surrounded by Arab entities that seek their extermination as a country and as a people.

The Manhattan Theatre Club poses the questions “Where can Jews find a safe place to live?” and “Why do they have to keep searching for one?” in Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic. Over the course of three quickly-flying hours, this gripping play tackles the dilemma through the story of five generations of a Jewish family living in Paris from 1944 to 2017.

We are introduced to the modern-day Benhamou family:  psychiatrist and department chair Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), her doctor husband Charles (Nael Nacer), and their two children, the socially-conscious Elodie (Francis Benhamou) and the more-religious Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi). They are being visited by a distant American cousin, Molly (Molly Ranson), a student spending the summer in France. The family is rounded out by Marcelle’s brother, Patrick Salomon (Anthony Edwards), and their father, Pierre (Richard Masur). Anti-Semitic violence is on the rise in what used to be the tolerant, civilized City of Light, and danger is starting to intrude on the well-to-do Benhamous.

Interspersed with the modern-day story are flashbacks to the Paris of the Second World War. Elderly Adolphe Salomon (Daniel Oreskes) and his wife Irma (Nancy Robinette) live in a bubble of protection in the occupied city, their three children having scattered to flee the Nazis. After several years, their middle son Lucien (Ari Brand) and his son Pierre (Ethan Haberfield) return home to rebuild the family piano business and repair their war-torn family.

Prayer for the French Republic deepens the historical drama by presenting two families using intergenerational and interpersonal bickering and argument to realistically create and tighten family bonds.  Seeing two iterations of the same family dealing with the same issues — moving between “it can’t happen here” through “it might happen here” to “it will happen here, again, and soon” — lends depth to the eternal longing of a people to find a permanent place to live with dignity and security. Playwright Harmon also weaves in the question of expressing one’s ethnic identity in the larger society: how much is too much to show to the world, and how much can — should — must — be kept hidden? As an additional subtle touch, he portrays the American cousin as fluent in French but unsure of some words her French relatives use, so that during more heated conversations she misses the meaning of what’s being expressed — cluing us in that, while the play’s language is English, its characters’ language is not.

Director David Cromer’s sensitive and fluid direction of his cast elicits from them uniformly brilliant portrayals. Anthony Edwards, as a strictly non-religious Jew, often takes on a narrator’s role as he relates family history. Francis Benhamou’s Elodie delivers a powerful, often humorously fabulous stream-of-consciousness monologue mixing religion with politics with history with economics with necessity-versus-idealism. Nancy Robinette shines as Irma, the mother who, even when dreading the answer, continues to press her son about the fate of his family. Betsy Aidem’s Marcelle is another determined mother, horrified at what befalls her son for simply wearing a yarmulke in public, who fights for her family’s rightful place as French citizens, yet is unsure when confronted by her husband’s fears for their safety. Nael Nacer portrays those fears as the logical conclusion to what he’s seen and heard, seeing the family’s only way out as leaving for a new start in another country based on his own family’s history. Molly Ranson’s American cousin is smart and strong-willed enough not to let others use her outsider’s status as an excuse for their own prejudices. Ari Brand’s Lucien and Ethan Haberfield’s young Pierre give strong portraits of the different ways people deal with traumatic stresses as they try to pick up their past lives and rebuild.

Richard Masur and Aria Shahghasemi on stage talking to each other
Prayer for the French Republic: Richard Masur (L), Aria Shahghasemi (R)

Takeshio Kata’s scenic design, sensitively lit by Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker, uses a large center revolve to create two apartments separated by time but not circumstance. Sarah Laux’ costumes give a sense of both time and circumstance appropriate to the characters.

It is tempting to say Prayer for the French Republic is a perfect play.  It is not, but it comes as close as I have seen in a long time.  It is not afraid to tackle big questions involving conflicting, sometimes hostile, points of view that cannot be reduced to simple conclusions.  It is a play of power and beauty, one that will leave you in awe of the enduring power of great theatre. I strongly urge you to see Prayer for the French Republic before its limited engagement is over.

Prayer for the French Republic is presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th St. in New York through March 3, 2024. For more information, visit manhattantheatreclub.com. To order tickets, go to telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.