Review: For Jews, an Unanswered ‘Prayer for the French Republic’

Such is the sadness of our world that plays about antisemitism, however historical, cannot help but be prescient. Take “Prayer for the French Republic,” Joshua Harmon’s sprawling family drama about the Salomons, Jews who have “been in France more than a thousand years,” as one of them puts it, still sounding provisional. With violent incidents on the rise, and a fascistic, Nazi-adjacent party gaining in the polls, should they finally seek safety elsewhere?

When it ran Off Broadway in 2022, “Prayer for the French Republic” already seemed painfully timely, with the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, the murder of a Holocaust survivor in Paris and other antisemitic atrocities barely in the rearview mirror. Two years later, with so much more awfulness to choose from, Harmon, revising his script for Broadway, has cut references to those events. What is too much for the world is way too much for the play.

And the play, for all its urgency, is already way too much. Running just over three hours, “Prayer for the French Republic,” which opened on Tuesday at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, is still not long enough to do justice to the multiple histories it wants to tell. In the manner of prestige television series, but compressed for the stage to the point of confusion, it tries to dramatize the largest and most intractable world issues within the microcosm of a single family, creating an impossible burden on both.

The play also revisits an earlier time, alternating scenes set in the mid-1940s with, from left, Daniel Oreskes, Nancy Robinette, Ethan Haberfield and Ari Brand.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

That this Manhattan Theater Club production, directed by David Cromer, remains mostly riveting is the result of the richness of Harmon’s novelistic detail — and the exceptional skill of the principal actors in realizing it. Chief among them is Betsy Aidem, as Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, a psychiatrist living in Paris in 2016 who seems to need a psychiatrist herself. Overprotective and yet hypercritical of her two children, she loses control when one of them, Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi), is beaten up by antisemitic thugs near the school where he teaches.

Marcelle’s frenzied response creates a fissure in the family that the play then proceeds to pry wide open. Her husband, Charles Benhamou (Nael Nacer), a physician who emigrated to France from Algeria when conditions became impossible for Jews in the early 1960s, eventually concludes that, like his native country then, his adopted one now is profoundly unsafe. Familiar with sudden uprootings, he wants to move as soon as possible — to Israel.

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