Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 14, 2021
The Lehman Trilogy. Written by Stefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. Associate director Zoé Ford Burnett. Scenic design by Es Devlin. Costume design by Katrina Lindsay. Video design by Luke Halls. Lighting design by Jon Clark. Composer and sound design by Nick Powell. Co-sound design by Dominic Bilkey. Music director and pianist Candida Caldicot. Movement by Polly Bennett.
The story of the Lehman Brothers and their attainment of financial gain and the power to wield it extends from the age of the robber barons to the Great Recession of 2008 that saw the titanic global financial conglomerate sink into bankruptcy and ignominy.
Still, this is no cautionary tale. As written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, The Lehman Trilogy is a celebration of that legendary American spirit, an unbridled belief in unlimited potential that continues to draw immigrants to this country. It is an expansive story as well, relating a journey of 150 years that takes nearly three-and-a-half hours to tell and some masterly magicianship to keep our eyes and ears glued to the stage all that time.
The secret to this play's ability to mesmerize lies in the telling, which defies theatrical convention by employing mostly third-person narration throughout. It begins with a few moments that take place in silence, during which a janitor (Aaron Krohn, who is actually an understudy for the role of one of the brothers) clears up the debris in a modern-day boardroom, a sneak peek at the closing bookend. Then suddenly we are whisked back to 1844. Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale, in a word, "magnificent") gets us to join him as he conjures up a wooden dock in New York harbor. He begins: "He had been dreaming of America. The son of a cattle merchant, a circumcised Jew with only one piece of luggage, stood as still as a telegraph pole on Dock No. 3 in the port of New York."
If there were no stage, but only the sound of the actor's voice, it would be more than enough to sustain the narrative. The same can be said of the production's two other performers: Adrian Lester as Emanuel Lehman and Adam Godley as Mayer Lehman. (Later in the play, Godley equally excels as Robert Lehman, the last of the Lehmans directly involved with the business). The trio also smoothly morphs into other roles as needed, including wives, children, and grandchildren. The effect overall is the equivalent of having us gathered before one of those tall-cabinet radios that families all over the country sat glued to in the pre-television heyday of "Radio Mystery Theater," "Inner Sanctum," and "The Whistler." To further that part of the illusion, The Lehman Trilogy is accompanied pretty much throughout by a pianist (Candida Caldicot), with music composed by Nick Powell who also provides the play's evocative sound design.
All of these elements are in place to support the story of the Lehmans. Part One of the play takes us from Henry's dry goods store in Montgomery to the brothers becoming huge cotton brokers, pretty much creating the job description of "middleman" in the trade business. Things run smoothly and profitably for them for quite some time, until, bang, the Civil War breaks out, and we likewise break for the first of two intermissions.
In a similar vein, each part ends with some catastrophic event that knocks down the Lehmans for a while, until, after their deaths, comes the final blow to the business that continued to bear their name. We all know how it ends, but recovery does follow the first two disasters: the Civil War and, later, the Great Depression. In Part Two, after Henry has died, the two remaining brothers relocate their lives and their business to New York, where cotton gives way to iron, coal, and other commodities, along with feeding the industries of war and wherever else they can see an opportunity to buy, sell, and trade. It really isn't much of a leap from there to the trading of stocks and other holdings.
But really, all the business stuff is merely an ongoing set of filler, the play's exceptionally well-written Wikipedia entry. It is the human side of the story that gives The Lehman Trilogy its commanding power, and it is the stellar performances by a trio of actors at the top of their game that carry the day. Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley have been with the play from the start at London's National Theatre and, later, at the acclaimed Park Avenue Armory production in New York, while Adrian Lester has taken over the role of Emanuel that was performed in those previous productions by Ben Miles. Their long relationship with the show has transformed the interactions between Beale and Godley into a well-rehearsed elaborate pas de deux (Polly Bennett is the movement director). Lester, whose acting chops are equally top-notch, is still smoothing out those choreographed moves, but that's a minor quibble.
Thus, an American tall tale unfolds. And therein lies the one truly problematic issue with The Lehman Trilogy. Despite its running time, this is a story that has been simplified, whitewashed, and what we sometimes call "Disneyfied." So much has been glossed over: the intersection of slavery and the cotton industry; any indication of antisemitism the Lehmans must have encountered; and the impact of the tragedies of the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, and the final implosion of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. on countless numbers of the Lehmans' fellow Americans. By focusing exclusively on one narrow perspective, the play seems as shallow as a teaspoon, and while none of this takes away from the production's power to thrill, it most certainly does matter.