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The Lehman Trilogy

Simon Russell Beal, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.


The Lehman Trilogy


             by Arney Rosenblat


The moment viewers sitting in the vast Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory  see Es Devlin's  amazingly designed massive glass cube rotating in black space with its three monochromatic offices and trove of cardboard file boxes that convert into the building blocks for props and scenery, all of which is wrapped around by a vast cyclorama that  displays transfixing narrative-advancing videos developed  by Luke Halls, it is clear that something monumental is occurring.     All of this is then enhanced by live cinematic style piano music composed by Nick Powell and played by music director Candida Caldicot and multidimensional lighting created by Jon Clark.  



The monumental nature of this theatrical experience  is confirmed in spades when the audience meets the renown British actors --  Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley --who will recount the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers portraying everyone from the founding trio of Jewish Bavarian immigrant brothers Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, to their sons, grandsons, wives, business associates, successors. and other relevant individuals in the inexorable Lehman journey to destruction.


The Lehman Trilogy, as the title implies, has been divided into three parts which is told from a third-person narrative perspective, Act One covering the Three Brothers, Act Two - Fathers & Sons, and Act Three - The Immortal.  The nearly three and a half hour voyage which transports the viewer through the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, the swinging sixties and the dawn of the digital age flies by. The play has been adapted with dazzling skill and care by Ben Power from a five hour epic work written in Italian by Stefano Massini who delved into his own Jewish roots to tell this story, as Mr. Power notes in the program, "about a family and a country losing its faith."  The piece was first performed in Paris in 2013 before attracting international attention in a Luca Ronconi production at the Piccolo in Milan in 2015.  It has since been staged across Europe where audiences have enthusiastically responded to the nearly three century story of Western Capitalism told through the lens of a single family.   


The more than one foot high glossy program provided by the Armory featuring a man  tightrope walking on its cover, is like the cherry on a sundae providing not only great detail on the background of the Lehman story but placing that background in chronological context  On a side note, the tightrope walker is not only a metaphorical figure representing the Lehman Brothers family but an actual individual Solomon Paprinskij who set up his show between two poles outside the Lehman New York office building  The program also is a helpful window into the history of the Armory itself.


It is Sam Mendes' (of current Broadway Ferryman fame) keen eye, boundless imagination, and steady directing hand that keeps the Lehman odyssey speeding along on its almost heart breaking relentless course which takes three German-Jewish immigrants driven by the American Dream for wealth and power from Montgomery.Alabama cotton and farming tool merchants in 1844 to ignoble New York banking and financial giants whose corporate overreach destroys their empire in the 2008 subprime mortgage scandal and economic recession that followed. 


Thanks to the extraordinarily nuanced performances, the viewer is hooked on the Lehman parable from the moment Henry, Simon Russell Beale, sets foot on American shores in his best shoes and with his single suitcase seeing the Statue of Liberty in the background, after which he heads for Montgomery where he's joined later by his younger brothers Emanuel, Ben Miles, and Mayer, Adam Godley.  "Henry's the head. Emanuel's the arm. And Mayer? He's what's needed between them. So the arm doesn't crush the head and the head doesn't humiliate the arm."


The audience watches the Lehman American Dream become corrupted as the family moves further and further from both their faith and provider of needed goods and services such as cotton, coffee, coal, tobacco, and transportation to where, as Philip Lehman (portrayed by Beale), Emanuel's son, who didn't just try to win but "decided to win," proudly proclaims, "we use money to make more money."  The audience also watches each subsequent generation of Lehmans become colder, more cynical and more driven.  Only Herbert, Mayer's son (played by Miles) escapes the "merchants of money" curse of the Lehman family leaving the business to follow a career in politics where he helped craft needed regulations and reforms as governor of New York.


One of the more chilling moments of the Lehman story is when Bobby (nailed by Godley), Philip's son, enjoys a successful day at the races on Black Thursday in 1929, flirting with a clever divorcee Ruth Rumsey who will eventually become his first wife (amusingly embodied by Beale), while the suicides of distraught stockbrokers and traders mount like numbers on a balance sheet in the midst of the devastating financial crash.  Bobby, the last of the actual Lehman heirs to helm the empire then coolly steers the company through the panic letting the weaker banks fail, betting on new growth industries such as entertainment and airlines, and  digging in until the government's need for strong financial institutions flips in their favor


Eventually, Bobby too becomes part of the Old Guard and drifts into obsolescence in the 1960's in a frantic grotesque dance of death playing out to the song "The Beat Goes On,"  which occurs counterpoint to the dance of the  new stars of Lehman, the trading division Bobby established led by Lew Glucksman whose profits soar  


Ironically, the foreshadowing of death has also been woven into the dance for this financial services trading arm of Lehman, though, like a car with no brakes,  only a brief twenty minutes or so is devoted to Lehman's final descent into bankruptcy  After major market deregulation in the 1980s, traders had free rein.  When in the late 1990s the housing market was booming Lehman Brothers along with a number of other banks were creating mortgages that were bundled into bonds and sold to investors, but increasingly, in search of profits these bundles went to individuals with limited means of repayment.  Suddenly in 2008 the music stopped and the mortgage bond market imploded under the weight of huge non-payments and debt.  Lehman Brothers, the smallest of the financially exposed investment banks, was deemed not too big to fail and was made an example by U.S. authorities.


As the myriad of characters are brought to life by Beale, Miles and Godley with a mere change of voice, tilt of body language or shift of expression,  the fabric of the story is kept in tact by the long black 19th-century frock coats each of them wears keeping the souls of the original Lehmann brothers alive and tying the past, present and future together.  This make the ending of The Lehman Trilogy even more fitting and poignant when the three original Lehman brothers are shown returning to their store in Alabama each reciting the Kaddish as their legacy collapses in New York becoming the largest bankruptcy to date in history


The Lehman Trilogy

Park Avenue Armory

643 Park Avenue at 67th Street


Running time 3 hours, 20 minutes

Closing date: April 20