(Left to right) Adam Godley, Simon Russell
Beale, and Adrian Lester in The Lehman Trilogy
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
The Lehman Trilogy
For those history buffs that have been hankering for a theatrical
event that peels the onion of western capitalism with a family flavor, look no
further than Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy,
which finally opened on October 14th at
the Nederlander Theatre.
Directed by Sam Mendes,
and adapted to the stage by Ben Power, it stars three superb British actors:
Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester (replacing original cast member Ben Miles
and making his Broadway debut), and Adam Godley.
This Broadway outing,
under the auspices of the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions, follows
a much-lauded run at the National Theatre (2018) and the Park Avenue Armory
In case you missed
the buzz, The Lehman Trilogy is Massini’s account
of the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers’ firm. While at first
blush it may appear to be a story about finance, it is truly about the Lehman
family, who, from humble beginnings, became kingpins on Wall Street.
Their company’s rise gained them adulation (and envy), and
their collapse—the Lehman Brothers firm filed for bankruptcy in 2008--triggered
a financial crisis still felt to the present day.
Be prepared to watch a piece of theater that’s Homeric in
scope and saturated with poetry! Divided into three
parts--Part One: The Brothers, Part Two: Fathers & Sons, Part Three: The
Immortals—this juggernaut clocks in at over 3 hours
with two intermissions.
Yes, it is a hefty
drama. But before you start kvetching over its colossal length, be
assured that it’s unlikely that you will be eyeing your watch or stifling a
yawn during this show. Originally conceived as a radio play by
Massini, (its world premiere was at the Comédie de Saint-Étienne in Paris),
this English version by Ben Powers moves along at such a brisk clip that you
may well be surprised when the final curtain comes down.
There’s nothing willy-nilly about this project!
Novelist-playwright Massini, who was inspired to write this play when reading
the headlines about the Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in 2008, did 3 years of
extensive research in finance and economics before putting his pen to
paper. It paid off! His historical detail in the
narrative gives a rich authenticity to his work.
Dialogue in this play is almost
non-existent. Instead of creating the conventional verbal exchanges
among characters, the author penned an extended narrative written in the third
person. Massini purposefully wrote it in this style so that it could
be performed either solo or with a cast.
Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy
Photo: Julieta Cervantes
In the current Broadway iteration, there’s a small
cast. The aforementioned Russell Beale, Godley, and Lester perform
the roles of the three founding Lehman brothers: Henry (the “Head), Emanuel
(the “Arm), and Mayer (the “Potato”). These characters frame the
story, never leaving the stage, even when the second and third generations of
Lehmans appear on the scene.
Remarkably, Russell Beale, Godley, and Lester also
impersonate an additional 70 characters, including wives, children, customers,
financial pundits, and more.
The play proper begins when Heyum Lehmann (the Port Official
wrote in error “Henry Lehman” and his stenographical error became the official
record), arrives on Dock No. 4 in the port of New York in 1844, with only one
pair of shoes and a suitcase to his name. A middle-aged Orthodox
Jew, Henry is the first Lehman brother to step into “that magical music box
Massini takes a lot of poetic license, leapfrogging over
years and decades in a nanosecond. In fact, in the play’s next beat
we see Henry in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1847. Cotton is king there,
and Henry has set up a small dry goods shop in the shadow of the Southern
The arrival of Henry’s younger brothers, the middle-aged Emanuel
and 19 year-old Mayer, to America in 1847 is dramatized in broad
strokes. They both simply materialize in Henry’s shop, with Emanuel
becoming his partner, and Mayer the peacekeeper. Indeed, the
brothers’ relationship to each other is a complex one. But the
author, in a brilliant stroke of synecdoche, explains their fraternal bond with
Henry as the “head,” Emanuel the “arm,” and Mayer “what is needed between
them. So the arm doesn’t crush the head.”
The Jewish religion is a vital element in The Lehman
Trilogy. There’s Henry reciting a traditional prayer from the
Torah as he lands in America (“Baruch HaShem!”). There’s a reference
to the Mezuzah, which is hung in the doorway of Henry’s shop in
Montgomery. Then there’s the troubling dream of Philip Lehman
(Emanuel’s son) who dreams that he is playing a game and that his father
prompting him to decorate the roof of his hut during the Sukkot
holiday: “This is your job, my son. Make this sukkah the
most beautiful sukkah you can. I’ll be watching you.”
There’s a continual tension between the past and the present
in this drama. And it’s most strikingly illustrated in the
observance of sitting Shiva for three deceased Lehman family members over the
years. The Shiva for Henry in 1855 (he died of yellow fever) lasts a
full week. For Mayer in 1897, three days. For Philip, who died in
1947, three minutes of silence. The generation gap is writ large in
this story, as we see the younger Lehmans questioning the mind-set of their Orthodox
Jewish fathers and embracing the freer thinking of a Reformed Jew.
The acting is top-notch. Russell Beale, who is
well-known for performing in Shakespearean and classic roles, portrays Henry
(the “head”) with a blending of piety and ambition. Adrian Lester
gives the right fiery temperament to his character Emanuel (the
“arm”). Godley’s Mayer (“the potato”) has the suitable
awkwardness. A shout out to Candida Caldicot who performs as “the
Pianist.” And let’s not forget Aaron Krohn, who plays the unenviable
role of Janitor, his character sweeping the floor of the Lehman Brothers
boardroom as the radio blares that the venerable firm is “threatened with
The creative team are all on the same page. Es
Devlin’s set, lit by Jon Clark, is a giant revolving glass cube, enclosing
three interior rooms that allows the actors to move freely among
them. Nick Powell’s original score is a rich medley of music that
draws on the melodies of traditional Jewish folk songs and more modern sounds
that echo with the building and expansion of
America. When it comes to the costumes, Katrina Lindsay has managed to find the right suits and top hats to outfit each Lehman.
No question that Mendes has done a bang-up job with this
iteration of The Lehman Trilogy. Catch it before it’s
Through January 2nd. the Nederlander
Theatre, 208 West 41st Street.
For more information and tickets, visit www.thelehmantrilogy.com
Running time: 3 hours; 20 minutes with two intermissions.