The theater season continues to explode like fireworks on the horizon. The Huntington season opener is a fleet and ferocious production tackling all the tough questions about the relentless scourge of antisemitism in a civilized society, and demands to be seen now. That it does so with equal parts humor and heartbreak is miraculous. PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLICby Joshua Harmon is ripped from the headlines and examined through a prism of one family’s experience and history over generations.
The play opens in 2016 Paris in the elegant home of the Salamon-Benhanou family, who’ve carved out rich full lives as piano makers. A beautiful grand piano made by the the founding father, and played by many generations of Salamons, sits upstage hovering over the action, a link to the family’s history, culture, and continuity over time. Marcelle Salamon (a volatile and hilarious Amy Resnick) is a psychotherapist, talks a mile a minute and has us in hysterics within her first few lines. Her husband Charles (the wonderful Nael Nacer) is mild-mannered and dryly funny in counterpoint to his tempestuous wife. 28 year-old daughter Elodie (Carly Zien) enters the room sullen and solitary like a homeless person in a hoody, whom we are given to understand is brilliant but troubled. (In Act II she’ll blow the roof off the house with a non-stop stream of consciousness rant about antisemitism. It’s a tour de force performance.)
The Salamon-Benhanou family has just been invaded by a distant American cousin named Molly (Talia Sulla), so excited to be spending her year abroad in Paris. She’s about to bed down on their sofa, and perhaps with their son Daniel (Joshua Chessin-Yudin) who ushers in the play’s central dilemma: he enters with a black eye, a bloodied nose, and wearing a yarmulke which has prompted the beating by antisemitic thugs who’ve been able to identify him as Jewish. It has also prompted Daniel’s now hysterical mother to reprimand him for wearing this Jewish signifier instead of keeping a low profile.
The incident sparks a chain reaction of responses as each family member reacts. Daniel defends his right to manifest his identity, others debate whether or not he should go to the hospital, or report the incident to the police. The attack gradually awakens everyone’s latent fears about how dangerous this is or isn’t. Is what happened an isolated event or a harbinger of something much worse? It’s then that the dining room table spins itself back in time to the 1940’s when earlier generations of Salamons broke bread as the Nazi’s descended on Europe.
Throughout, the tone fluctuates wildly from the poignant beginnings of a relationship, to the heat of intellectual debate; from the funny to the frightening, from the significance of something as French as a croissant to how French is a Jewish family who has called France home for generations but are now being treated as outsiders. The play asks THE question: Why do they hate us? And gives us some answers. Newly installed Huntington Artistic Director Loretta Greco in directing the first production of her first full season of programming, is in complete command of this marvelous cast and material, having produced a developmental workshop of Harmon’s dynamic play in 2019. The production feels grounded in a real situation, the weight of history impinging organically on their lives.
That said, the work is bracketed by a narrator who may not be needed: Marcelle’s tall, slim, handsome brother Patrick played by Tony Estrella, was a tad hard to hear, sings painfully out of tune (I don’t think this was intentional) at the piano, and delivers an uncomfortably graphic recitation of an historical incident of antisemitic persecution which feels gratuitous. Otherwise, the production is overwhelmingly effective, managing to make us think deeply, laugh heartily, and not lose all hope as we contemplate a world in which antisemitism is real and relentless, where many people do not feel safe and the idea of home has to be carried with us if we are lucky enough to survive–and if, in this shrinking world, one can find a place to go.
Prayer for the French Republic is three hours long. I didn’t notice. And it culminates in the entrance of the only in actor in town with the requisite gravitas to play the part: Will Lyman enters with the grandeur of an ancient patriarch, instantly galvanizing all the energy in the room, delivering the impact of generations as his character focuses the play’s final, pivotal scene.
MUST SEE PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC onstage at The Huntington at the Huntington Theatre through October 8!