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.