‘Prayer for the French Republic’ Review: A Three-Hour Lesson in Recent History That Never Takes Flight

‘Prayer for the French Republic’ Review: A Three-Hour Lesson in Recent History That Never Takes Flight

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At first blush, the three-hour runtime of “Prayer for the French Republic,” playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway, seems appropriate. Though it obviously does not exist specifically in response to the events of Oct. 7, 2023 and the violent aftermath in the months since (for one thing, the play was first staged Off Broadway in 2022), it exists within the context of the entire history of Jews in Europe, and it seeks to draw that history out. Playwright Joshua Harmon seems to be aiming for the reach of Tony Kushner, using maximalist technique to deliver ideas that sprawl forward.

He does not get there. “Prayer for the French Republic” is, in one sense, timely, delivering as it does pointed and direct arguments between characters who represent differing points of view on the nation of Israel. (They do better as representations of ideas, in fact, than as characters.) In 2016, the Benhamou family, led by matriarch Marcelle (Betsy Aidem, undeniably excellent) suffers a crisis of faith in their native France after son Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi) is assaulted on the street for wearing a kippah. Led first by Charles (Nael Nacer), whose own family left Algeria in the 1960s, the Benhamous move towards a decision to emigrate to Israel.

That choice is vehemently opposed by Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Anthony Edwards) and met with bland confusion by visiting American cousin Molly (Molly Ranson). It’s in the character of Molly that the show falls flattest, with her foreignness an invitation for the Benhamous, particularly daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou, sharing a surname with her character) to deliver disquisitions that have the shape not of drama but of political treatises, or particularly charged captions on Instagram carousels.

“Prayer for the French Republic” seems designed to evoke debate on the train ride home. But the relative shapelessness of the Benhamous’ journey towards leaving France has a flattening effect on the audience. I came to appreciate the show’s second story, told in the aftermath of World War II as Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents (Nancy Robinette and Daniel Oreskes) mourn the family life the Nazis stole from them, as a simple and elegant tale, well-told, even if the context it adds to the Benhamous’ story doesn’t quite measure up to the big ask of bulking the show out to three hours. (There’s a sweet and painful touch of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to the ancestors’ initial game of imagining their children all alive, out there somewhere in the world beyond ravaged France.)

Back in the near-present, though, the Benhamous’ departure seems so foreordained — and so relentlessly argued towards, with Molly and Patrick representing a sort of naïve and ungenerous unawareness and Daniel vacillating in a way that the story can’t make credible — that the tension seeps away.

Missing, too, is the texture and granularity of cultural differences between France and America. The presence of an outsider — as well as a brother and, eventually, a son who declare a greater loyalty to the Benhamous’ native France — would seem to present the family with contrasts that might heighten our understanding of their own situation. And yet director David Cromer has made the surprising choice to step away from evoking France in anything more than the most basic croissants-and-cigarettes signifiers. The upper-middle-class Benhamous feel like a family you might expect to meet in an upscale Brooklyn neighborhood. That deflates any claim the show might make to picking apart the unique qualities of anti-Semitism — and the backlash thereto — in France, as well as the sweep of French history in particular.

The choice of France as subject seems in part to sidestep taking on Trump. As the 2016 section staggers into 2017, Molly, far from home, mourns the inauguration of her new president and, more pertinently to the play’s story, the Benhamous fear the electoral success of right-wing leader Marine Le Pen, who reached the second round of voting in that year’s French presidential election before being wiped out by Emmanuel Macron.

Le Pen is treated by the show’s French characters in a manner precisely congruent with how American audience members — and their avatar, Molly — treated Donald Trump; the French characters speak of them as though they are one and the same, separated merely by a language. Le Pen is a fascinating figure, and has been for years a signal of the rise of far-right authoritarianism around the world and in Europe in particular. (And she came marginally closer to winning, again facing Macron, in the French elections of 2022.) But the ways she is interesting — notably her committed anti-Muslim sentiment, extending France’s so-called “laïcité” tradition of secularism to a proposed ban on headscarfs in public, a potential counterpoint to Daniel’s being beaten for his own religious garb — lay beyond the reach of Harmon’s pen. And so she’s evoked, but in a manner that’s more clumsy than enriching.

That’s not to say that “Prayer for the French Republic” should have been about something other than the story it tells. But it doesn’t tell it in a compelling or nuanced manner — despite Harmon having set himself up to succeed with a flashback story that could, but does not, provide real context and present-day interlocutors who could, but do not, push the Benhamous beyond platitudes. The debates the Benhamous are having are ones that are happening in our own republic — at dinner tables and in group chats, on Instagram and at protests. And in that way the play is right on time. But for all the capaciousness of the show’s story, what it’s ultimately trying to do is narrow: To explain a choice a group of characters make by proving that those opposed to it just aren’t being serious. It’s a case, it turns out, that takes three hours to conclusively prove.

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