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The Lehman Trilogy

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(Left to right) Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian Lester in The Lehman Trilogy
Photo: Julieta Cervantes

The Lehman Trilogy

                                      by Deirdre Donovan


 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 (2019).

 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. 

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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 called America.”

 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 plantations. 

 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 bankruptcy.” 

 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 history.

 Through January 2nd. the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street.

For more information and tickets, visit
Running time: 3 hours; 20 minutes with two intermissions.