Monday, February 21, 2022

Diatribe: Prayer for the French Republic

Yair Ben-Dor, Molly Ranson and Francis Benhamou in Prayer for the French Republic. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Prayer for the French Republic, now playing in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at City Center, is Joshua Harmon’s response to the wave of anti-Jewish incidents in Paris in 2016 and 2017. And it’s a hefty response – three acts, three hours’ running time, during which the characters never stop lecturing the audience and, indeed, each other. Harmon has provided a narrator, a cosmopolitan atheistic Jew named Patrick Salomon (Richard Topol) who recites for us the history of atrocities against Jews. But it’s not clear why the playwright feels the need of a commentator at all, since he’s built rants into the dialogue of both Patrick’s sister Marcelle Benhamou (Betsy Aidem) and her neurotic twentysomething daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou). Even the ghost of their grandmother Irma (Nancy Robinette) strides downstage to explain to us the symbolic significance of her tombstone – the grave of a Jewish woman who, along with her husband Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar), survived the Holocaust without leaving France, out of sheer luck. Prayer for the French Republic is barely a play at all. There are characters – nearly a dozen of them, some in modern-day Paris and some in an intercut flashback set between 1944 and 1946 – but they’re mostly mouthpieces for Harmon’s disquisition on anti-Semitism.

Harmon has a talent for writing comic dialogue, and for the first act his showmanship, the skills of the actors and director David Cromer’s driving rhythms keep you engaged. The Benhamous are an entertainingly dysfunctional family whose non-stop nagging and quarreling, which they carry on without embarrassment in front of their weekend house guest, a college-aged remote American cousin named Molly (Molly Ranson) who’s spending a semester in France, provides a tonal counterpart to the serious narrative. Marcelle is a shrink whose daughter’s psychic disturbances seem beyond her professional abilities. Elodie doesn’t have a job, doesn’t always eat, and stays in bed until her mother practically drags her out of it. Her younger brother Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor) has chosen to become an observant Jew. He teaches math at a parochial school and wears a yarmulke in the streets, which has, when the play begins, attracted violent attention from a trio of thugs who followed him and beat him up. Marcelle is up in arms; she can’t understand why Daniel won’t protect himself by sporting a baseball cap so that he doesn’t make himself a target for hatemongers. The response of the calmest member of the family, Elodie and Daniel’s father Charles (Jeff Seymour) – whose family emigrated to France from Algeria when it became too hot there for Jews – is to consider the possibility of their moving to Israel. As for Molly, she has so little connection to her Jewish roots that she’s never even attended a Passover Seder, but she has strong (knee-jerk) leftist objections to Israel.

Most of this eruptive interaction passes, after the first intermission, into self-seriousness, and after a while Cromer runs into ideas for maintaining the comic energy – or even the dramatic energy. He and Benhamou, a resourceful actress, manage to rescue a scene where, over wine at a cafĂ©, Elodie proselytizes Molly on the subject of Israel; Harmon has written it as a comic monologue interrupted occasionally by the few phrases Molly can get in edgewise, but it’s so transparently an impassioned apologia from the playwright’s mouth that, funny or not, it’s insufferable as dramaturgy. But there isn’t much Cromer or the actors can do with the flashbacks to 1940s Paris. The aging Salomons have remained undisturbed in their apartment because of a compassionate superintendent and a laissez-faire French Gestapo officer, but only one of their three children succeeded in getting out of Paris before the round-up of the Jews; at mealtimes Adolphe soothes his wife’s anxieties about the other two, who were arrested, and their children by making up stories about their escape and the free, happy lives they are living in self-imposed exile. These moments are touching, but once their son Lucien (Ari Brand) returns home, after the war, with his teenage son Pierre (Peyton Lusk), the writing becomes flat, and even Cromer loses his bearings – that is, his theatrical instincts. The two actors who play the concentration camp survivors drag themselves through their scenes while Cromer uses Lusk’s square, sorrowful face as an emblem for suffering. And the inevitable scene where Lucien finally succumbs to his mother’s daily pleas to share with her and his father the details of their captivity is staged as very bad melodrama. Cromer, who directed what was probably the greatest Our Town anyone will ever see, surely knows the wisdom of playing against emotionalism when the material is already imbued with it.

By the time (the end of the third act) almost all the characters have gathered in the Benhamous’ apartment, on the verge of their emigration, to list all the reasons they can theorize for the unending persecution of the Jews, you’re ready to cry uncle. (And I don’t mean Uncle Patrick, who is the most irritating character on the stage, seeding his cold, cynical outpourings with protestations of undying devotion to his sister that sound like they were written for some other character.) The audience rises to its feet during the curtain calls, of course. The play trumpets its importance so often during the second and third acts that to do otherwise would be tantamount to allying themselves with Jew haters. Remember when people wrote plays rather than treatises? Cherish your recollections of those days.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.     

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