At a time when we’ve gotten used to tasty 90-minute hors d’oeuvres, it’s exhilarating to encounter a play with enough on its mind to hold the attention for three hours (including two 10-minute intermissions). Joshua Harmon’s Prayer For the French Republic (immaculately directed by David Cromer at Manhattan Theater Club’s off-Broadway house) is a full meal concerning a French-Jewish family whose business for generations has been making and selling pianos. Actually, the play deals with the family at two different points – in 1944-46, as an elderly couple hide till Paris is liberated and wait to see which of their family has survived, and 2016-17, when some of their descendants decide what steps to take in the face of the increased antisemitism in modern France.
We’re supposed to assume the characters are speaking French, but, of course, they play it in English, and conversational English at that. This can’t help but remind the audience of the parallels between what was happening in recent years in France (the increasing influence of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing faction) and here (Trump and his apparent alliance with white supremacists and fascists here). The family in Harmon’s play, weighing the competing claims of being Jewish and being French, contemplate fleeing. How many in the US looked at Trump’s election as a signal that we might not be safe in this country?
The perspectives of the modern family are highlighted by contrast by that of an American relative (who speaks good French) who becomes a constant presence in their house during her year of study in France. She brings with her a distaste for Netanyahu’s policies which is only a little less intense than the family’s distaste for Le Pen. This sets up long swatches of compelling, impassioned dialogue between people who manage to care about each other even as they heatedly disagree.
I’m not going to fill a paragraph with appropriate individual adjectives for the large and excellent cast beyond mentioning the Betsy Aidem expresses an irony and intellectual rigor reminiscent of Elaine May (with whom Cromer acted in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery).
As I mentioned, the family’s business is selling pianos, and the image of the piano as an instrument of beauty and harmony stands in contrast to much of the brutality of the history the family has had to cope with. As it happens, a number of the foreign-language TV shows I watched while waiting out the pandemic have similarly viewed the politics of their countries of origin through the businesses the leading characters run.
My wife and I are currently about halfway through the Danish series, Kroniken, which concerns the arrival of the TV industry in Denmark beginning in 1949 and continues through 1972. (I just read that a sequel series is about to run in Denmark.) One of the leading characters is a Social Democrat politician married to a woman whose father’s industrial policies are in conflict with much of what he holds dear. (I’m sorry, this is not available for streaming in the United States yet. I ordered discs from Denmark.)
The Restaurant (original title, Vår tid är nu or Our Time is Now–available through AMC+) is about a family that tries to rehabilitate a restaurant that was popular with the Nazis during WWII. One of the women who begins by waiting tables ends up becoming a major figure fighting for change in the government.
Berlin Dance School (original title, Ku’damm 56–available through the Masterpiece subchannel on Amazon Prime) is about a family-owned enterprise that has to evolve from teaching the waltz and the foxtrot to coping with the invasion of American rock-n-roll; the after-stench of fascism is everywhere and the conflicts are not strictly about music.
And then there’s the sunny and smart Seaside Hotel (original title, Badehotellet–also available through Masterpiece), which takes a Danish holiday hotel from the late twenties onward. Word is, the next series will deal with Denmark in 1945. I cannot see how it can help but touch on the Danes’ nationwide collaboration to save the Jewish population in the final days of the war.
All of these are fine. Whether Joshua Harmon knows it or not, he has joined their company. And indeed, his play offers plenty of room to be spun off into a similar series.