NEW YORK — Hamas’ brutal attacks on Israel on October 7 cast a wide shadow on Broadway.
They were there at the opening musical “Harmony” They’re there again in November, in the Broadway transfer of director David Cromer’s riveting production of Joshua Harmon’s new three-hour drama “Prayer for the French Republic,” which opened Tuesday night at the Manhattan Theater Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
That’s true, even though Harmon’s epic exploration of the perils of Jewish identity is the off-Broadway hit of 2022 and was written long before we learned about parachutes, kidnappings, and human carnage at a music festival. Theater, unlike movies, is a time-bound art form, and the bodies of the actors in Cromer’s Broadway production pulse with the uneasiness of the present moment, which is certainly alarming for Jews and their allies.
“To be a Jew in Europe, to be a Jew in France, means to grow up in a place that has historically oppressed you for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years,” says Elodie (Francis Benhamou), in a split-screen play featuring young Parisian characters that follows multiple generations of French Jews ; some II. Having survived World War II, so to speak, others are exhausted by their growing anxieties in modern-day Paris.
At the heart of the show is the issue of conflicting loyalties. Given the lessons of history, the play asks the question: Can a Jew feel completely safe in France, or even truly consider himself French? The play takes place partly in 2016-17, when far-right candidate Marine Le Pen was making frustrating political moves, and partly between 1944 and 1946, when Jewish families were either destroyed or their loved ones were missing from their desks.
At a café, Elodie talks with her progressive but mostly clueless cousin Molly (Molly Ranson), a visiting exchange student who declares herself Jewish only “by extraction.” Elodie defines exactly what she means by persecution: She’s not talking about getting into the right country club, but rape and death. Historical records show this; That’s what the news showed.
“Prayer for the French Republic” feels strikingly prescient; especially in terms of how Jews often struggle to find a home on the political right or left. Had it existed beyond the fictional world of the game, American student Molly would certainly have had a better understanding of what her cousin had been talking about in recent weeks. She would see the folly of her own youth.
In the play, his entire extended family feels a palpable uneasiness; It’s a quiet sense of dread that reflects beautifully on Cromer’s directorial sensibility, his staging highlighting, as he has done for years, how people overcome despair in the name of resilience.
With Elodie’s mostly secular mother Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), a husband named Charles (Nael Nacer) who wants to move to Israel, son Daniel (Aria Shahghasemi) whose newfound religiosity makes him unsafe on the streets, and a brother Patrick ((Aria Shahghasemi) Anthony Edwards, whom he cannot trust to care for his aging father Pierre (Richard Masur) if he moves to Tel Aviv.
Many in this family are uneasy about Israel, a geopolitical entity inextricably linked to Jewish identity, but they also realize they may need it sooner than they think. Harmon’s main point here is that logic dictates that Jews should recognize the shadows of history, act accordingly, and never linger too long; But who can live and love this way?
On top of all this, we see Pierre’s grandparents (a piano salesman) in their Paris apartment in the 1940s, whose family miraculously survived the invasion, but their son Lucien (Ari Brand) and grandson (Masur is Young Pierre) were blown up. We see. It was torn apart by the Holocaust.
These two periods alternate in Takeshi Kata’s set; Cromer’s magnificent cast walks through a world of light and shadow, magnificently illuminated (and obscured) by designer Amith Chandrashaker.
Nervously narrated by the self-doubting Patrick, the play suggests that little is resolved, that Jews remain wanderers by necessity, that the painful lessons of history have never been more important, and that love and happiness must be seized wherever possible.
We are all here for a moment, of course, often stuck in the middle of events that are out of control. No matter your identity, you’ve rarely felt your own vulnerability so strongly in a Broadway theatre.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Manhattan Theater Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St., New York; www.manhattantheatreclub.com