‘Terraces’ Review: A Stunning Tragedy Revisits the Paris Terror Attacks

Outdoor cafe terraces are part and parcel of the Parisian way of life — ready meeting points for socializing and people-watching, across ages and social classes. Yet the word for them in French also means to floor, or bring down, someone.

On Nov. 13, 2015, the worst Islamist terrorist attack in French history did just that to Parisians, bringing horror to cafes and entertainment venues in a string of coordinated shootings and bombings. Now Laurent Gaudé, a prominent French author and playwright, has channeled the collective trauma of that night into a stunning play, “Terraces,” which had its world premiere at the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris on Wednesday.

If you were in the city that night in 2015, fielding panicked calls from relatives and friends as news alerts pinged, the prospect of a show summoning those memories may be cause for trepidation. And “Terraces” does bring it all back — the gut punch, the nausea. Yet Gaudé and the director, Denis Marleau, manage just the right amount of distance and emotional finesse to haunt rather than reopen wounds.

It isn’t the first attempt to dramatize the attack. In 2017, a book by Antoine Leiris, whose wife was among the victims, was adapted for the stage, and several short plays have focused on the stories of survivors.

With “Terraces,” however, Gaudé works on a much more ambitious scale. Its structure is choral: The text weaves together not just the experience of victims, but the voices of people whose lives changed in other ways that night. Passers-by, spouses, parents, emergency medical workers, special forces and a janitor all make appearances, with stories that overlap and build up to a collective remembrance of the attack.

Extensive research evidently went into the production, but “Terraces” doesn’t fit neatly into the genre of documentary theater. Its characters are composite creations rather than real people: Many introduce themselves under several names and stress that theirs are collective stories. While some characters pop up time and again over the course of the play, they often occupy a liminal space between dream and reality, reappearing at the scenes of other shootings or speaking from beyond the grave.

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