Consider the Couch
A Prayer for the French Republic
A Prayer for the French Republic was full enough during this first week of previews. All the jokes have been landing and get the appropriate clap and guffaw response. But all of those empty seats are an angering shame. My interest in this show is selfish: the lives of my kids would be way easier if everyone in their world saw this show. Boston is a small world - so I would like for everyone in the area to see the show. There are enough seats to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, the beginning of the school year is not great timing for school groups to go to the theater (I tried. No one was interested in planning a trip for September this past May, no one was answering work email in August, and everyone is too busy now to even consider it), and even worse timing for families trying to see the show (or maybe just my family, I have moved our tickets three times - postponed All-Star games, Back to School Nights, first day of school overwhelm, etc, etc…). September is high holy days time, too; so a show about a Jewish family becomes a little harder to go to if you are Jewish.
Imbedded in the middle of all of the emails about high holy days services at the local synagogue is a “spoiler alert” about the forthcoming conversation about Israel during services. This show would have been a wonderful primer for that conversation. I should have been more persistent about my 10 tickets to auction scheme. This show expresses opinions powerfully. As in, all of the opinions. And then, most characters change their minds, and they all admit that this is a difficult conversation. I don’t think this show would be angering or alienating to anyone. Just a no skin-in-the-game way to watch a hard subject be dealt with in a hilarious way.
My date thought every single line in the show was ripped from reality. He looooooved it. On his tiny tiny short list of critiques was the original family profession: piano manufacturers and sellers. A great-grandma that was an accomplished pianist is not possible for most families, given the education, comfort (and piano) that profession requires. He wanted this story, that felt so real, to be applicable to a wider swath of the population. My date’s teeny-tiny critique actually touches on the biggie-big controversy in theater - who is this for? what is it for?
The set and the costumes yesterday communicated to my date that the show is not about him or his people, and it is not meant to be talking to him or folks like him. Which is odd - considering how much he apparently has in common with those characters. So, we were both happy voyeurs. Watching a family discuss a problem whose specifics are particular to them.
The story goes, the SS sent someone to arrest them, but their building's super grabbed him and said, "What are you doing, it's old people, leave them alone." And he did. He left, and Irma and Adolphe spent the war in their apartment in Paris, untouched.
It was my understanding that the big shame of France’s governmental involvement was that Paris’s own police department registered its Jewish residents, handed the files over to the SS and then French police officers did the arresting. When I looked it up in Wikipedia “genânt” (embarrassing) was the word the Secretary General of the French police used to describe the plan to arrest the French Jewish people. The concession he negotiated was that the French police only had to arrest foreign-born Jewish people, but the SS had to arrest the French-born people. So, this family was one that the SS came for.
One character sites a few statistics about why France was one of the better places to be in Europe if you were Jewish in the 1940’s. The percentage of Jewish people who died was lower than most countries, and the lowest of the 5 that had more than 100,000 Jewish people. On the 80th anniversary of Vel’ d’Hiv last year, Emanuelle Macron doubled down on Jacques Chirac’s 1995 apology. When I listened to that speech again just now, I finally understood why that speech was so controversial. Macron admits that “complicity” is misleading. He then lists the pre-1942 actions that the French government took, wholly of their own accord, to put the paperwork and government machinery in place to deport and/or kill their Jewish residents.
I am way more okay with the demographics of the typical theater audience than most people would guess, given my social-justice warrior politics. There is an unspoken understanding amongst the higher-ups in theater that we are in conversation with a specific chunk of the American population: folks with generational participation in higher education and who are in that top 20% of household income group (roughly $100,000+/year). Different shows will bring out different cross-sections of this group. Most theater-makers hope that their shows will draw some folks outside of that group…but understand that this industry was not built to do that, so we often fail at it.
A grandma that was an accomplished pianist is within the realm of possible for the cross-section of theater-goers in attendance last night. I know well which seats bring in which prices at the Huntington. Sometimes subscribers can get great seats for less money - but that means they had a big chunk of money and an open calendar before the season started. However, the money and time are less important than the “generational access to higher education”. This means that no matter what part of the world your people hail from, someone in there had access to the education that allows for a “professional” career. There are great studies of this conducted by some business schools and theater management departments that we can look at later.
Do we include music and making instruments as “professional” careers, even though it doesn’t tend to earn someone a living wage and often looks like a skilled-labor job? Do those jobs imply a sort of higher education, even if it would not necessarily have been college?
Whether the apartment above was meant to be two separate apartments in Paris, or the same one, inherited over so many generations - to the modern eye it looks elegant and even conveys substantial wealth. The previous production at Manhattan Theater Club had a much more humble feel, not least because the volume of the space was necessarily a tenth of the Boston set. Consider the stills from the Manhattan production and tell me if the setting changes your impression of the wealth or access to education of this family.
The cross-section of the core theater audience showing up for this production looks laughably like a caricature of a theater crowd- 95% retirement age, 95% white. Those folks need this show, though. They need to be able to see this exact conversation had in an environment they are comfortable in. I think they would be comfortable in a full house with every kind of diversity present - so again, those empty seats are an angering-shame. But I am soooooo happy that they were there, continue to be loyal theater-goers, and continue to show up for shows that are talking directly to that demographic, about that demographic. And challenging them.
Because it is Boston, let’s assume that this crowd is 95% Democrat. One half of Democrats need to be told that it is weird that we care so deeply about Israeli human rights abuses (population of Palestine/Israel 1.3 million) and spend minimal emotional energy on the devastation happening under Narendra Modi (population of India 1.3 billion). Or that it seems obvious that Israelis are occupiers and should leave when we all max-relax in backyards on un-ceded first nations territory. The other half of Democrats need to ask ourselves why Israel needs to exist - why, in our communities that care so deeply about human rights, does so much dangerous anti-Semitism persist, fester and flourish. Why haven’t we, who understand the need for a place like Israel, harnessed our copious righteous energy to evict anti-Semitism from our own communities?
More than what we know about this family from the script: piano makers and sellers then teachers and doctors, in France for thousands of years in Paris for a century; the set tells us whether or not their family is like our own family. I think it was wise of the Huntington to alienate my date a little and hit the audience with more generational wealth and education right between the eyes.
Whether your grandpa was more of a peddler, or your grandma more of an accomplished musician, this show will delight and entertain you. Please tell your cousin from Boston that I have a ticket for them (and then tell me, so I can make sure it is waiting for them and their date at will-call).