Antisemitism on Stage: Prayer for the French Republic and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis Reviews

The best thing to be said about these two new theatrical works is also the worst thing – that their exploration of antisemitism is well-timed and necessary.

If they have little else in common, both “Prayer for the French Republic,” a play about antisemitism in France, produced by MTC at New York City Center, and “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” an opera about antisemitism in Italy, co-produced by the New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at The Museum of Jewish Heritage, feature a Passover Seder where family members remember the trials and triumphs of the past, despair about the present, and pray for a better future. They also argue a lot.

“Something is happening in the world, and it’s happening in our country too,” says a character in “Prayer for the French Republic,” an ambitious if imperfect original play by Joshua Harmon that looks at the rise in antisemitism by telling the story of one fictional family in France. 

Marcelle (Betsy Aidem) is a member of the Salomon family, Jews who have lived in France for hundreds of years. Those of her relatives who survived the Holocaust, stayed.  Her father, in his eighties, is the fifth generation of Salomons who have owned piano stores throughout France, a business that he rebuilt after the war. 

Yet, in 2016, Marcelle’s 26-year-old son, Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor), returns home with a bloodied face. Several hooligans beat him up because he was wearing a kippah, a skullcap worn by religious Jews. Marcelle, who grew up secular, has been trying to get her son to cover up his newfound devotion by taking it off when he is outside, or at least wearing a baseball cap over it. His father Charles Benhamou (Jeff Seymour) soon comes up with a more drastic solution: They should move to Israel.

Antisemitism had forced Charles as a child to emigrate with his mother from Algeria, where his family had lived for many generations. Now, he feels it is time to move again. “We are Jews. The only reason we’re still on this planet is because we learned to get out of dangerous situations before they got the better of us…It’s the suitcase, or the coffin.”

Marcelle at first resists. But over the next year, she is battered by the news of a series of  antisemitic murders and mass killings throughout the country.  “One percent of the population, we are; and forty percent of the hate crimes.”

That’s the core story, but Harmon expands the play with more characters and subplots. On the day Daniel is beaten up, the family happens to be hosts to a visiting distant cousin from America, Molly (Molly Ranson), a college student who is starting her year abroad. In Molly, Harmon creates  a certain type of strident, woke and occasionally clueless secular Jew that he has proven adept in skewering (in such plays as Bad Jews and Admissions.) There’s a hilarious moment at the end of a loud angry argument between Daniel and his parents. To calm things down, Charles says “please….let’s have dinner.”   After a pause, Molly, who has been silent and ignored throughout the altercation, suddenly pipes up:  “I don’t know if I mentioned, I’m a vegetarian?”

Eventually, Molly tries to persuade the family not to move to Israel, politely – “I’m not sure what the word is in French, maybe it’s the same — apartheid?” This provokes a sarcastic rebuke from Daniel’s older sister, Elodie (portrayed by Francis Benhamou – and no, that isn’t a typo. The actress has the same last name as her character.) The two cousins engage in a spirited argument that, to the playwright’s credit, gives ample heft to both sides. (Harmon cuts Molly some slack as the play progresses, allowing her to become less of a caricature.)

Besides Molly and the Benhamous, there are five other characters in “Prayer to the French Republic.” There’s Marcelle’s father Pierre (Pierre Epstein), and Marcelle’s brother Patrick (Richard Topol.) Patrick functions (much like Molly) as a foil, providing counterarguments. But he’s also the narrator, and, in that role, he introduces us to four other characters, also members of the Salomon family – living in France during the war.  In scenes from 1944 to 1946 that alternate with the ones from 2016 and 2017, we see Patrick and Marcelle’s great-grandparents (Kenneth Tigar and Nancy Robinette) in their home in Paris, where they were miraculously left alone during the war, but knew enough never to venture out into the streets, and always to keep the windows covered. They wait and wait for word of the family members who weren’t lucky. Finally their son Lucien (Ari Brand) comes back, along with Lucien’s son, the teenage Pierre (Peyton Lusk), both having survived Auschwitz.  (It’s worth pointing out that an estimated 75 percent of French Jews reportedly survived, a rate that was “one of the highest in Nazi-dominated Europe.”)

Given how surprisingly inert these older scenes often are, the play might have worked better without them; they help push the length to more than three hours – too long for what we get.

Some of the scenes in the 21st century have the opposite problem to the quiet ones in the 20th.  Director David Cromer is known for his delicate touch, in such works as Our Town Off-Broadway and Broadway’s Tony-winning musical,  The Band’s Visit, but it feels largely missing here.   Admittedly, this is a family that spends its Passover Seder mealtime, as Patrick puts it, “one-quarter eating, three quarters arguing.” But, still, we didn’t need the crosstalk and shouting  to be quite so….unrestrained.

I also could have done without the weirdly sentimental and contrived ending.

I prefer  to think of “Prayer for the French Republic” as a work in progress. It’s certainly a sign of progress that we’re getting a play like this on a New York stage – a well-researched play that calls out actual incidents, and the names of specific victims, in the years-long current surge in antisemitic violence in France…and in the world.  Among the incidents Patrick brings up is the 2018 massacre by a white supremacist of the worshippers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, ”the deadliest attack on Jews in American history.”

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is a new opera adapted from the same novel by Giorgio Bassani that Italian director Vittorio De Sica turned into the 1970 Oscar winning movie.  

It tells the story of the fictional aristocratic Jewish family from the Italian city of Ferrara, the Finzi-Continis, through the eyes of Giorgio (tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro), a member of a middle class Jewish family, who from childhood has pined for the daughter, Micol Finzi-Contini (lyric soprano Rachel Blaustein.) It’s a love that’s unrequited, but as the 1920s turn into the 1930s,  a platonic friendship flourishes, in part because Italy’s  Racial  Laws that strip Jews of many of their rights bring Giorgio and Micol closer together, literally. Banned from the public library, university and public tennis courts, Giorgio is invited by the Finzi-Continis to use their private library, and to play tennis in their private court. But even the spectacular garden of Finzi-Continis soon offers no refuge, as the Nazi influence on Italy accelerates.

In composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie’s telling, the story takes place between 1927 and 1943, with a prologue and epilogue in 1955. In these first and last scenes that bracket the action, an older Giorgio visits the now-abandoned synagogue of Ferrara, finding a man sweeping up.  This is Perotti (Adam Klein), once-loyal servant to the Finzi-Continis. But he isn’t taking care of the synagogue out of sentiment; he’s being paid, from an annuity the family was prescient enough to establish before they were taken away. “No Jews live today anymore in Ferrara,” Perotti says, and makes the sign of the cross. He continues to admire the family, in his way. Of the patriarch, whom he refers to as il professore, he says: “If one has to be a Jew, he was the least Jewy a Jew can be.”

It’s a startling line early in the opera, and it establishes the casual antisemitism that helps explain how the Holocaust could happen in Italy (as elsewhere.) This is an example of what I consider a main strength of this adaptation: It eschews subtlety for clarity and force. 

Another striking example is a song entitled “The Hütte” (the changing room for the tennis courts.)  It is a clever dual duet.  Giorgio sings of his obsessive love for Micol — I should have held her. Inhaled the scent Of her perfume — while Micol sings of…her glass collection; she is oblivious. At the same time, Micol’s brother Alberto (Brian James Myer) sings separately of his longing for Malnate (Matt Ciuffitelli) — How long can I hide This hunger inside — while Malnate sings of…his admiration for Stalin; again oblivious.  The visual makes this desire palpable: Alberto and Malnate are half-dressed in the changing room.

I didn’t remember any mention of Alberto’s homosexuality in the movie, but I’d seen it many years ago. So I watched it again – and still saw little indication, other than a brief anguished look on Alberto’s face at one point; too subtle for me. Something else in the opera that I didn’t catch in the movie: Micol’s rejection of Giorgio is to protect him, because she is aware that her family’s prominence makes them a target of the Nazis.

The forcefulness of the new adaptation is aided by the virtuosic singing of the cast, which is of course enabled by the operatic quality of the music.

“The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” launched last Thursday, which was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and is running only through this Sunday; most of the performances are sold out.  This makes me feel free to admit that the kind of opera music in “The Garden of the Finzi-Continies” is neither my favorite nor my forte – which is to say, the kind that doesn’t focus much on melody and makes English sound like a foreign language, stretching vowels and emphasizing consonants unnaturally. When Alberto at one moment offers to play a record for Giorgio, and goes through what’s in his collection – “Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Fats Waller, Beethoven, Bach, Scarlatti” — I started longing to hear traces of any of that in Gordon’s score.  But it was not to be.

But such operas, at least, acknowledge the need to be more accessible, and so “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” offers both a scene by scene synopsis in the program, and surtitles so that you can follow every word. And the words can be powerful. At the Seder, each takes a turn at singing a phrase in “When All This Passes”:

When all this passes. When all this passes.
The flag-waving Black Shirts.
The gullible masses.
Who once were our neighbors; It hurts and harasses.
When all this passes.
The vile propaganda.
The pandering speeches.
The Vatican practice
is not what it preaches.
As Job had his trials, and Jacob his labors –
The Lord will deliver us, as Passover teaches.

Prayer for the French Republic
MTC and NY City Center through February 27
Running time: three hours and 10 minutes
Tickets: $99
Written by Joshua Harmon
Directed by David Cromer
Takeshi Kata (scenic design), Sarah Laux (costume design), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting design), Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design), Daniel Kluger (original music), J. Jared Janas (hair and makeup design), and Richard Hodge (production stage manager).
Cast: Betsy Aidem, Yair Ben-Dor, Francis Benhamou, Ari Brand, Pierre Epstein, Peyton Lusk, Molly Ranson, Nancy Robinette, Jeff Seymour, Kenneth Tigar, and Richard Topol.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
NYC Opera and National Yiddish Theater at Edmond J. Safra Hall of the Museum of Jewish Heritage through February 6
Running time: three hours, including an intermission
Tickets: $25
Composed by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Michael Korie 
Based on the novel by Giorgio Bassani
Production Concept and choreography by Richard Stafford
Directed by Michael Capasso and Richard Stafford
Conductor: James Lowe
Set Designer: John Farrell
Lighting Designer: Susan Roth
Costume Designer: Ildikó Debreczeni
Cast: Rachel Blaustein (Micól Finzi-Contini), Brian James Myer (Alberto Finzi-Contini), Mary Phillips (Mama), Franco Pomponi (Papà), Anthony Ciaramitaro (Giorgio), and Matt Ciuffitelli (Malnate), D’Marreon Alexander, Robert Balonek, Adam Cioffari, Peter Kendall Clark, Dani Goldstein, Spencer Hamlin, Kristee Haney, Rebecca Hargrove, Sarah Heltzel, Adam Klein, Meredith Krinke, Melanie Long, Violet Paris, Gabe Ponichter, Sami Sallaway, Drew Seigla, Markos Simopoulos, Rosy Anoush Svazlian, Tim Roller, and Rachel Zatcoff.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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