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A ‘vaguely Jewish’ director confronts a vexing Jewish dilemma in a specifically Jewish play

The stage director David Cromer once described himself as “vaguely Jewish.” His current job has erased the “vaguely.”

“It forces me to spend more time thinking about what my Judaism means to me,” Cromer said. “What I owe to it, what it has provided for me. I think about it quite a bit.”

That job is directing the world premiere of “Prayer for the French Republic.” The drama by Joshua Harmon begins previews Jan. 11 and opens Feb. 1 at Manhattan Theater Club’s Stage I at City Center in Manhattan.

The play concerns five generations of a French Jewish family, and the choices they must make. It takes place in Paris both in 1944, during the Holocaust of World War II, and in the Paris of more than 70 years later, amid rising currents of antisemitism.

“I’m not a particularly observant Jew,” Cromer said. “I’ve become less of an observant Jew as I’ve gotten older, and I was never very observant to begin with. And the play involves relatively secular Jews who are confronting the idea that” no matter how secular they are, “they’re still Jewish. There’s a line in the play — when they come to get you, you’re not asked. They don’t ask. They don’t let you go” because you think the religion “is bullshit. They don’t say, ‘Oh, this guy thinks it’s bullshit — let him go.’ I spent a fair amount of time reconnecting to that.”

A poster for 'A Prayer for the French Republic'

A Prayer for the French Republic: Joshua Harmon’s new play opens on Jan. 11.

Cromer, 57, grew up in Skokie, Illinois, and first came to prominence in Chicago theater. He has won a Tony Award, a Drama Desk Award, three Obie Awards and three Lucille Lortel Awards. He won his directing Tony for “The Band’s Visit” in 2018 and was most recently Tony-nominated for directing “The Sound Inside.” He won a 2017 Drama Desk Award for the off-Broadway version of “The Band’s Visit,” at the Atlantic Theater Company.

He is also an actor, and starred as the Stage Manager in a revival of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which he directed and for which he won the 2009 Lortel and Obie Awards for his direction. He performed on Broadway in the 2014 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” with Denzel Washington. And he was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Foundation genius award.

Harmon is known for his critically praised plays “Bad Jews” and “Significant Other,” as well as for “Admissions,” which won the 2018 Drama Desk award as outstanding new play and the 2018 Outer Critics’ Circle Award as Outstanding New off-Broadway play.

In “Prayer for the French Republic,” the family members must decide whether the increase in antisemitism in France, and elsewhere in Europe, in the 2010s has made it unsafe for them to stay in their homeland.

“It’s a very big question, for which there is no easy answer,” Cromer said, speaking on a Zoom call during the play’s rehearsal period. “The play is about taking this old idea of having to become refugees again and bringing it into modern times and putting it into the laps of people who don’t think they’re going to have to face that question again. And it’s about how they struggle with their fear, and what decision they make.”

One of the things he finds compelling about the play, “and stirring to me emotionally,” Cromer said, “is that we tend to look back on terrible situations, on atrocities, on situations that went slowly and horribly wrong for people, and say, ‘Why didn’t they get out? Why didn’t the people see this coming?’ Not even as criticism, but how did that get so out of hand, how did that happen? Why didn’t these Jews in World War II get out of Paris? The writing was on the wall. The Nazis were marching into France. It’s very easy to say that. But in the present, for the characters in the modern part of the play, as the antisemitic attacks are building up in Paris, it’s much more complicated. It’s very difficult.”

The modern-day family in the play is middle class. “They have a nice life,” Cromer said. “There are all the complexities and reasons you can’t go, and reasons you shouldn’t go, and reasons you should stay and fight. If someone said to you or me, ‘You’ve got to get out now, sell everything and leave your home,’ we might say, ‘I don’t know. What are you talking about? It’s not going to get that bad. I hope things will get better. I hope things will be OK. I think that cooler heads will prevail. I don’t think people are crazy. I can’t. All my stuff is here. I’ve got all this business tied up. I’ve got family I’ve got to take care of.’”

Take America, for instance. “We feel relatively safe in this country. To look back and say, what if we had to get out? When I thought Trump might get re-elected I was in real conversations with people who were saying they were going to leave the country. Really? You’re going to leave the country? That’s so huge.”

“And that gives me an enormous amount of insight into how hard it is to leave, to upend your life, even when you’re in danger — and it’s terrifying to think that we might be in that situation again. It’s not easy to make a giant choice.”

The play, though, does not have a message, he said. “If I was able to say the message of a play, I would not expect anyone to see it. Ideally we need every single moment of writing, every single moment of the choices the actors made, and the designers made, and the director, to hopefully combine and add up to something that allows the audience to think about” what they’ve seen.

And, he said, although the play is explicitly about Jews, it’s also about everyone. “I believe that the universal is always in the specific,” he said. “That the more precise you are about a specific set of circumstances, the more universality you can see. The specific allows any thinking or feeling person to recognize the complexity of their own circumstances in something else that is maybe not specific to them.”

What’s ahead for Cromer? Another world premiere, “A Case for the Existence of God,” by Samuel D. Hunter (“A Bright New Boise,” “The Whale”), a fellow MacArthur Fellow, at the off-Broadway Signature Theater beginning April 12.

“It’s a very faith-based year for me,” Cromer said.

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