Regional Reviews: Boston
The Lehman Trilogy
The Lehman Trilogy, which runs at The Huntington through July 23, opens with these words from Heyum Lehmann as he steps off the boat into a new world. The son of a cattle merchant from Bavaria, Henry (as he is renamed) is about to turn his idea into a reality that will bear the family's name for over 150 years. But not without hard work and perseverance, and not without his two younger brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, who join him in Montgomery, Alabama, shortly thereafter.
Thus begins a dizzying epic of American empire that spans three generations and many revamps of the Lehman Brothers business, charting a course from Henry's arrival in 1844 through the last family member to work for the firm, who passes away in 1969 and leaves their legacy to clumsy successors who fail to stop Lehman Brothers' collapse in 2008. It's a mesmerizing portrait of a family of titans in American industry, in which the original brothers' entrepreneurial spirit is passed down through the bloodline until, one day, it runs out.
Stefano Massini's original play, written in Italian, opened in 2014 not long after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. The Huntington is presenting Ben Power's English-language adaptation, which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2018 in a production that transferred to The Armory in New York in 2019, and here receives its first American-born production. In the capable hands of director Carey Perloff, this play has the momentum of a high-speed train, its three acts propelled forward by the family's relentless drive to expand their business and cement their fortune.
The Lehman Trilogy is a real showcase for three actors who convincingly inhabit the three founding brothers as well as their descendants, spouses, business partners, and countless others along the way. Steven Skybell, in the showiest of the three roles, plays Henry Lehman (and his progeny) with a twinkle in his eye, guiding us into the heady optimism of the play from his first words fresh off the boat. Joshua David Robinson's pragmatic Emanuel and Firdous Bamji's taciturn Mayer are likewise beautifully etched, with the three actors achieving an infectious chemistry that plays up the human side of these presumed giants.
Henry, we are told, is the head of the family, Emanuel the arm, and Meyer the peacemaker between the other two (he refers to himself as a "potato"). From their origins running a modest store in Montgomery, the three brothers soon pivot from selling fabric to the very source: cotton! They invest in plantations and resell the cotton they produce to mills at a hefty profit. Their trading business grows, expanding to plantations across the South, but not without friction between the brothers. Henry would get his way for a while, but his premature death at age 33 leaves Emanuel and Mayer to forge a new path forward.
Cotton booms, with Emanuel founding an office in New York to sell authentic Southern cotton to Northern gentlemen. But soon the country is at war, North vs. South, and the two Lehmans once again must restructure as the economy of the South crumbles. From middlemen to investors! Lehman Brothers expands its empire further into the hallmarks of American industry, from tobacco to trains–and the family tree expands in tandem, as Emanuel's son Philip and Mayer's son Herbert are groomed to carry on their fathers' legacy. While Herbert moves into politics, Philip takes to business with a head for deal-making and a vision of immeasurable growth: "It's not luck, my dear," he tells us, "it's strategy."
The promise of the 20th century looms large until the stock market crash of 1929 (depicted in a harrowing scene of the brokers who committed suicide that dark day). But the company once again muscles through, navigating increased regulation and embracing the advent of technology from the television to the computer.
As he chronicles the highs and lows of 158 years in business, Massini uses clever strategies to avoid his work feeling encyclopedic. The company's constant rebranding is seen visually in an ever-changing yellow-lettered storefront sign. The boom and bust of 1920s Wall Street is bookended with the image of a tightrope walker, precariously balanced above the frantic traders until one day, inevitably, he falls. And in Sara Brown's effectively minimalist scenic design, the stage fills with wooden crates as the Lehmans' capital increases over the decades. (Joe LaRocca, an on-stage musician accompanying the actors on a variety of woodwinds, also adds a welcome effervescence to the production.) Only the final minutes enter Wikipedia territory, in a lukewarm epilogue that swiftly walks through the company's final decades.
Massini has received criticism for his depiction of slavery. The brothers' connection to slavery, through the cotton they buy and sell, is not entirely overlooked: "Everything that was built here was built on a crime," the brothers are told during Reconstruction. But it would have been fascinating–and offered the play more depth and complexity–if Massini really grappled with these three Jewish immigrants who fled oppression in their homeland, not only profiting from but also (omitted from the play) actually owning slaves. The Huntington addresses this omission outside of the text, adding scholarly discussions in the program notes that expand on the historical context glossed over on stage.
We can go even further and say that Massini's work here does not really challenge any of the preconceptions we bring with us. It's a clean feat of storytelling instead of a real interrogation of capitalism and its consequences. The Lehman Trilogy offers the intimacy of a story passed down by our ancestors: a buoyant tale of grit and determination, a robust American myth brought down to earth.
To echo Henry's arrival back in 1844, this is a play about the idea of America: the promise and hope of our not-so-distant past, fleetingly and vividly revisited before our eyes.
The Lehman Trilogy, runs through July 23, 2023, at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit huntingtontheatre.org, call 617-266-0800, or visit the Huntington Theatre box office in person.