5/7/2023 PRAYER FOR THE FRENCH REPUBLIC Actor’s Express
SONATA FOR SUITCASE AND GRAVE
The Salomons are (or at least were) purveyors of fine pianos. For generations, their Paris establishment was the source of countless exquisitely tuned playgrounds for the young and musically inclined. Even during the Nazi occupation, the store remained intact, and Adolphe and Irma remain untouched, though their children became part of the Jewish diaspora. And part of Holocaust statistics.
Today, Adolphe and Irma’s grandson, Pierre, is old and infirm and his own children have no desire to “take up” the family business. Besides, no one is buying pianos anymore. For any reason. And Marie Le Pen has stoked France’s right-wing antisemitism. Does the family stay with Pierre or move to Israel? Is there any place in the world that is at all safe for escape?
Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic is a dense and layered tapestry. A portrait of one particular Jewish family created at two particular points in time (2016 and 1945), it includes threads of belief, identity, ethnicity, history, music, pride, assimilation, and fear. It is a riveting journey into an unknown future that holds no easy answers, no safe havens. But it is, above all, a loving portrait of family. And it is one of the most profoundly moving experiences you’re likely to have in this (or any) theatrical season.
In 2016, American cousin Molly is spending a year in Paris, and is staying with Charles and Marcelle Benhamou. Marcelle is Pierre Salomon’s daughter. Her brother Patrick is our storyteller, the narrator who tries to stay aloof and
uninvolved but can’t help judging his family’s often unfortunate choices. Charles and Marcelle’s son, Daniel, prefers to express his identity by wearing a yarmulke in public, and has just been beaten by some antisemitic bullies. Their daughter, Elodie, is hyper-intelligent, hyper-manic, and hyper-depressed.
Meanwhile, back in 1945, Paris has been liberated, and Adolphe and Irma have survived the occupation. Their daughter has emigrated to Mexico, and their son, Lucien, and his family are believed lost. Now Lucien is returning home with his traumatized son, Pierre. Lucien’s wife and daughter never survived Poland.
Meanwhile, back in 2016, Charles and Marcelle are feeling strains in their marriage. Both are medical professionals with careers and friends in Paris. But Charles is feeling the pressure of politics, especially with the venomous rhetoric of the candidate Le Pen. He suggests moving to Israel, where, despite a “terrible apartment” and the constant threat of terrorist attacks, he would feel safer. Marcelle will not move! Ever!
Meanwhile, back in 1945, Lucien can’t help but wonder if he’d still have his family if he had fled Paris at the first signs of Nazi approach.
Meanwhile, back in 2016, with acts of violent anti-Semitism part of the daily news cycle, Charles can’t help but wonder if the family’s history is a portent of things to come.
Mr. Harmon’s plays, most of which have seen Actor’s Express productions, are usually snarky little comedies centered on Jewish characters, on the disconnect between faith and ethnicity, on the examination of the many differing versions of what it actually MEANS to be “of Jewish character.” I really liked Bad Jews but was a little cooler towards Significant Other. This time, he has chosen an epic canvas to give us a compelling “deep dive” into Jewish history, into the forces that simultaneously rend and unite families, into the conflicts within the diaspora itself. And he does it by creating a roster of distinct, memorable, and compelling characters.
And he has couched it as a piece of music, a sonata with a distinct melody and non-atonal harmonies. It’s no accident that a rapturously beautiful piano centers the set (by the always reliable Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay). The playing space is traverse (or alley) format, with the audience on opposite sides. At first it appears that 1945 will be at one end, 2016 at the other. But as the play progresses, that distinction melts away and the eras blend and overlap and are apparent “counter-melodies” developing a cohesive theme. In fact, Freddie Ashley’s direction (perhaps his best ever) is brilliant at keeping sight lines open, at keeping character relations clear, at keeping scenes flowing quickly (even overlapping on occasion), at keeping the pace brisk – this is a long three-act piece that never “feels” long, never feels “padded.” He is helped enormously by Joe Alterman’s original score, a tone poem that underscores the piece and adds a lyricism and cohesion that accentuates as it broadens and deepens emotional impact. This production looks and sounds absolutely superb!
And this is a cast that connects, that fills each character with drive and personality, that gels like a family, that gets under our skin and makes us truly care for this family. Ross Benjamin starts us off as a charming and urbane Patrick. Carolyn Cook turns in another outstanding performance as Marcelle. Filling out the 2016 family is Jared Simon as Charles, Faina Khibkin as Elodie, Adir Lev Mann as Daniel, Aliya Rose Kraar as Molly, and Clayton Landey as Pierre. The 1945 cast is led by Susan Shalhoub Larkin and Barry Stolze as Irma and Adolphe, with Shaun Maclean as Lucien and Jacob Sherman as Young Pierre.
There are countless “moments” that resonate and take root in memory – Irma’s after-death monologue describing how her grave, in a family plot, carries the end date of 1946 as a joyous “F.U.” to the minions of antisemitism; Elodie and Molly trying to bond over drinks but degenerating into a minutes-long rant from Elodie that jumps from “my point is” to another “my point is” with the abandon of a dervish; Young Pierre at the piano, playing one of Mr. Alterman’s melodies as if it came from his deepest heart; Patrick admonishing Marcelle about her post-marriage conversion to more devout ritual. Moments that define character, that define family, that define history.
At the top of the third act, there is a strong argument that boils down to “Where is it safe for us?” There is evidence that few places are safer than Paris – after all, Adolphe and Irma lived to be reunited with Lucien and Pierre, and we’re told 60% of Parisian Jews survived the war. And Israel is dirty and dangerous and Marcelle and Charles will, by definition, have to start over with their careers. For an outsider like me, this does not seem to be a hard choice.
But. History tells us Hitler was elected by a majority of Germans. And Le Pen is incredibly popular (okay, hindsight tells us that Macron won that election, but its closeness is another frightening red flag). Our own 2016 election is not an insignificant factor.
We are told that in such an ethos, a Jew’s only options are “the suitcase or the coffin.”
Even a non-believer like myself can only pray that such an ethos cannot survive.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #aePrayer)