Prayer for the French Republic

Prayer for the French Republic is now playing at the New York City Center.

By Elazar Abrahams

There’s a lot to like in Prayer for the French Republic, the new drama by playwright Joshua Harmon that will keep you in your theater seats for a full three hours. There’s quite a lot to scoff and shake your head at, meaning audiences are left with a mixed bag in the fullest sense. You’ll walk away fulfilled but conflicted; the play has much to say about antisemitism old and new, and the bonds that tie a family together. In a certain sense it’s profound and beautiful. But is it any good? Eh. Not really.

French Republic does not need to be three hours long, and it’s as simple as that. The production has two intermissions at intervals that aren’t even the high points of the show. Harmon clearly has a lot of thoughts about Jewish identity, and they are all packed into this bloated script. We absolutely do not need to sit through a 10 minute monologue on Israel, among other assorted tirades. This epic wants to cover present-day France, which is rife with attacks on those that appear visibly Jewish, as well as the Holocaust. Those two time periods are more than enough, yet the writer insists on discussing the crusades, pogroms, and Sephardi pilgrimages in such depth. It’s just too much at once.

Additionally, the quality of the dialogue is noticeably stilted. In real life, people don’t actually talk like these characters do. To borrow a cruel phrase, it feels like you’re watching verbal diarrhea. Again, these characters are just convenient mouthpiece for Harmon to work out his feelings on many topics.

All that being said, I was never bored during the play, which is always an achievement in a work this long. It’s a testament to the cast, all of whom are excellent and game for anything. Their quick back and forth banter is truly delightful, and they sell you on the material even when the script is clunky. Jeff Seymour, Betsy Aidem, and Rich Topol stand out as particularly talented. I’ll definitely be seeking out their work.

The staging is also really well done here. Rotating walls and rooms is kind of a Broadway cliché, but it serves its purpose here, expertly flipping back between the same family a few generations apart. I was entranced by the wonderful simplicity of it all.

So do I recommend Prayer for the French Republic? The answer is a resounding “kind of.” I want people to see this so that similar stories are able to be told on stage going forward, at the same time, I certainly hope those productions are better than this one.