'Prayer for the French Republic' review — gripping, airtight play is a dramatic triumph
Read our five-star review of Prayer for the French Republic on Broadway, a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award winner for its Off-Broadway premiere.
Why does everyone hate us? Where can we go that’s safe? These stubbornly open-ended questions pop up repeatedly in Joshua Harmon’s piercing and pointedly amusing Prayer for the French Republic, now on Broadway following its 2022 Off-Broadway premiere.
Over the play’s three hours and as many acts, we follow five generations of a Jewish family in France dealing with anti-Semitism and life-changing choices. Prayer for the French Republic is an intimate drama that branches out far beyond one family tree.
Directed with airtight elegance for Manhattan Theatre Club by David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), the deftly designed and acted production features a number of actors from the Off-Broadway ensemble.
At lights up, it’s 2016. We’re in the comfy Paris apartment of middle-aged Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, a psychiatrist and no shrinking violet as played by an invaluable Betsy Aidem. She shares the place with her doctor husband Charles (Nael Nacer) and their adult children, Elodie (Francis Benhamou) and Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi).
Marcelle has been reluctantly entertaining her distant American cousin Molly (Molly Ranson), who’s visiting while studying abroad in France. They’re interrupted by the arrival of a wounded Daniel, who gets beaten up for wearing a yarmulke.
Daniel, a math teacher more overt about religion than his family, has been attacked before. This episode reflects a local, grim spike in anti-Semitism. Charles lobbies to move to Israel, where a yarmulke isn’t a bullseye. Current events add a harrowing layer of complexity to this plot.
The choice for the family to stay put or flee becomes a charged debate – as it has for previous generations. The scene reverses to 1944 in the same flat, where Marcelle’s great-grandparents, Adolphe and Irma Salomon (Daniel Oreskes and Nancy Robinette), remained in occupied France during World War II.
They continued to run the family piano business while desperate for the return of captured, missing family. Their son, Lucien (Ari Brand), and grandson, Pierre (Ethan Haberfield), make it back. Others didn’t. The war’s end didn’t end hatred toward Jews.
The story spins seamlessly between both eras, bridging themes and characters in ever-compelling fashion. Marcelle’s opinionated brother, Patrick (ER’s Anthony Edwards, whose performance is bound to deepen in time), steps out of the action as a narrator to fill in swaths of exposition. Richard Masur rounds out the cast as Marcelle and Patrick’s father, whose appearance late in the play leads to an emotional gut punch.
Harmon is the talented playwright of Significant Other, about the frailty of friendship; Admissions, about race and privilege; and Bad Jews, about family legacies. He digs deeper than ever in Prayer for the French Republic and strikes pure gold. It’s a plus-size play about big social issues that impresses in large structural ways as well as small moments.
Among those moments: The growing closeness between cousins Daniel and Molly emerges as sweet, not cringeworthy. Young Pierre speaking across decades made me sit bolt upright. And a breathless political rant Elodie delivers in Act 2 is built to stand out — and does. After 15 minutes, she concludes her screed with: “The world is on fire.”
It’s still burning, so this Prayer will likely always be relevant. That’s a dramatic triumph – and a scorching reality.
Photo credit: Molly Ranson, Francis Benhamou, Nael Nacer, Aria Shahghasemi, Betsy Aidem, and Anthony Edwards in Prayer for the French Republic. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
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