Nothing crystallizes millennia of antisemitism like the Martyrology Service during Yom Kippur afternoon service. “Why are we so hated?” “Can anyplace ever be truly safe?” and “Where will be next on this list?” we can’t help wondering.
As if on cue, the Huntington Theatre’s season opener speaks to these questions and more with Joshua Harmon’s exceptional “Prayer for the French Republic,” winner of the 2022 Drama Desk Outstanding Play Award. Under Loretta Greco’s razor-sharp direction, Harmon’s themes of antisemitism, assimilation, family, freedom, identity, and fear come to life.
Set in Paris in 2016-17 and 1944-46, “Prayer” follows five generations of Jewish piano sellers. Marcelle Salomon Benhamou, the current matriarch, her husband Charles, and their children, Daniel, 26, and Elodie, 28, are the limbs of the original Salomon family tree.
The play opens with house lights up as Patrick, the play’s narrator and Marcelle’s brother, addresses the audience. His eye-contact and hands-in-trousers-pockets ease establish rapport and immediacy. “What is the beginning of a family?” he asks as he strolls across a set that will represent both 1944 and 2016. “And what,” he doesn’t ask but seems about to, “is its end?”
Abruptly, the calm evaporates. We are in the Benhamou apartment, where Marcelle (the sublimely talented Amy Resnick) is mid-sentence, explaining her convoluted genealogy to Molly, an American cousin who has just arrived to spend her junior year abroad. Only one thing seems clear: Marcelle’s Ashkenazi family has been rooted in French soil for centuries.
Just as Molly sort of gets it, Charles (the always amazing Nael Nacer) bursts through the front door with Daniel, who has been attacked by a gang of antisemitic thugs. Daniel’s face is bloodied, but he is nonplussed. His parents are apoplectic.
“How many times have I begged you to wear a baseball cap?” Marcelle pleads. Daniel teaches at a Jewish school and wears a kippah. She urges her son to acknowledge and adapt to the danger he invites by advertising his religion in a world where antisemitism and fascism are on the rise. What she doesn’t do is entertain any thought of leaving France.
Charles’ reaction is more flight and fright than fight. He has walked this walk and knows where it can lead. He and his North African Sephardic Jewish family have lived in diaspora since antisemitism forced them to flee Algeria in the 1960s.
“It’s the suitcase or the coffin,” he says. “I’m scared. Something is happening.” This wandering Jew is tired of living at the whim of host countries. He wants to go “home.” He wants to move to Israel.
Harmon quietly relocates us to 1944 (Andrew Boyce’s set makes this seamless), where we meet Marcelle and Patrick’s great-grandparents. They sit in their comfortable apartment, wondering what has happened to the rest of their family. Miraculously, they were able to remain in Paris during the war after the Nazi sent to deport them took pity on their age and left them alone. They even kept their piano store.
The rest of the play vaults between these two time periods, connecting them with the overarching question: When is the tipping point between suitcase and coffin? When is it best to leave, even if one’s family has been there for centuries and no other place will ever feel like home?
“You have to trust your instincts,” Charles implores. “It’s all you have.”
Writing cutting, funny, fast-paced, and well-researched dialogue that tackles difficult, uncomfortable topics is one of Harmon’s many attributes. His humor is often dark and our laughter is tainted with discomfort, but he wields his pen judiciously and always hits his introspective mark. He expertly uses Elodie (an electrifying Carly Zien) as his trademark firebrand mouthpiece, and her show-stopping monologue deserves a standing ovation.
Harmon doesn’t ignore the question of whether Israel’s politics have changed our feelings about it being a home for all Jews. Conflating Israel and Judaism has become painfully unavoidable. When Charles expresses his discomfort at reciting “A Prayer for the French Republic” during services, it’s hard not to relate.
Harmon is not pessimistic. We don’t pray to what is, he implies, but for what is not. “What is a prayer but speaking out loud to hope?” a character asks. Yet, can we really call a country whose politics marginalize who we are “home?” By ending “Prayer” with the cast belting out the French anthem, “La Marseillaise,” instead of Israel’s “Hatikvah,” Harmon’s answer, at least for now, seems to be yes.
The play runs through Oct. 8 at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave. Visit huntingtontheatre.org.