Review By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
The theatre has been slower to tackle the high drama of high finance’s high rollers than the movies or TV. While you have to search diligently for titles like Serious Money, Other People’s Money, Junk, and now, The Lehman Trilogy, it’s much easier to glut your greed for such material with films and TV shows about bankers, financiers, investors, traders, brokers, corporate raiders, and hedge fund managers.
A partial list of movies that followed in the wake of 1987’s Wall Street might include Other People’s Money (based on the play), The Associate, Boiler Room, Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, Arbitrage, Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short, not to mention Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. TV’s Billions and Black Monday series are in the same vein, along with documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, and so on.
As these titles reveal, stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, derivatives, and all those other financial products that sound sexy to those able to dabble in them (or even to understand them), can provide stirring material when sufficiently humanized by the right creative artists. That, happily, is resoundingly the case with Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s extraordinary The Lehman Trilogy.
Ben Powers’s bitingly vivid adaptation, which played briefly at the Park Avenue Armory in 2019, following its acclaimed run at London’s National Theatre, is now on Broadway, with one of its three great actors, Ben Miles, replaced by an equally stellar artist, Adrian Lester. (The Italian original premiered at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro in 2015.) The review that follows is a revised version of the one I posted on Theatre’s Leiter Side for the Armory production.
Everything about this epic-scaled work—other than its exceptional cast—was expansive at the Armory. This extended from its three-hour-and-fifteen minute history of the Lehman brothers’ worldwide financial empire to its giant stage and huge cyclorama. Even the program was oversized, so big I could barely stuff it in my shoulder bag.
For the production at Broadway’s Nederlander Theatre, the main components of Es Devlin’s remarkable set have been perfectly replicated, with one significant caveat. Because the show is now confined within a proscenium arch, the sense of immensity and grandeur achieved by viewing it from the Armory’s soaring bleachers, an effect precisely suited to the scope of the play’s subject matter, is gone. On the other hand, those who missed the Armory production, and perhaps even some of those who didn’t, will perhaps appreciate the greater sense of intimacy afforded by the Broadway staging.
What Devlin has contrived is a square, cube-like, glass-walled, modernist financial office, divided into one large conference room, with table and chairs, and two smaller offices. All of it is set on a turntable against a semicircular cyclorama; at the Armory, the cube sat on a vast, shiny black stage, an effect impossible to duplicate when the cube occupies most of the stage space.
Luke Halls has created extraordinary video projections encompassing the entire cyc, some of them still images suggesting the evolution of lower New York’s skyline, and others filmic, including hypnotic, and possibly vertigo-inducing, special effects.
The chief accouterments of the turntable office, in addition to tables, desks, and chairs, are piles of boxes, presumably containing paper files ready for transport following the firms’ closing. Moved about by the actors themselves, they serve brilliantly for multiple purposes, such as steps to the large conference table, which often becomes a stage, to stepping stones, to towers verging on collapse.
Director Sam Mendes has crafted a magnificent work of theatre, presenting the arrival on these shores of the Lehman brothers, Bavarian-born German Jews, beginning with the oldest, Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), followed by Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emanuel (Lester). What follows chronicles the story of Lehman Brothers, the siblings’ enormously successful financial institution, from its 1840s origins as a fabric shop in Montgomery, Alabama, to its death in the financial crash of 2008.
Wearing the same nineteenth-century black suits and coats (costumes by Katrina Lindsay) throughout, the trio narrates the action in the third person—occasionally engaging in dialogue with one another—as they play not only the brothers and their descendants but other persons who figure in the firm’s history, including wailing infants, decrepit old men, and various female figures. Each gets a distinct voice and, when necessary, American or Continental dialect, although the prevailing accent is British.
It would take far too long to mention all the highlights in the Lehman history, which earns its “trilogy” title from being broken into three more or less hour-long acts, “Three Brothers,” “Fathers and Sons,” and “The Immortal.” We learn about the private lives of the Lehmans, including how they met their wives and how they practiced Judaism, which regressed from the formal, weeklong observance of shiva mourning to a mere three minutes for the death of Emanuel’s son, Philip.
The big picture, however, focuses on their rapacious business practices. Interesting as this information is, there’s so much going on and at so fast a pace that the effort to listen closely may prevent you from becoming emotionally involved. Which is not to say that you will lose interest, so magnetically acted, directed, and designed is the experience. And a healthy sprinkling of humor, both verbal and physical, helps greatly to keep things lighter than you might think.
We watch the shift from the brothers’ Deep South fabric business to buying and selling raw cotton; their opening an office at 119 Liberty Street, New York, in 1860; their Civil War difficulties, leading to their becoming a bank in 1867; and their expansion into coffee, oil, tobacco, and railroads. We also hear, in material newly added, of the family’s early dependence on slave labor, mentioned in passing but without editorial embellishment.
We learn of the rise of Emanuel’s son, Philip, and Mayer’s son, Herbert, to company leadership; the successes of Philip’s son Robert (Bobbie), including investments in new businesses, like movies (King Kong is cited); the rise to high political office of Herbert, who had moral qualms about the business; their minimal loss from the stock market crash of 1929, with its consequent string of suicides; the profits made from World War II; the shift from family leadership to outsiders; and, as greed piled upon greed, and unbridled capitalism ran amuck, the company’s ultimate downfall as part of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. That, of course, played a giant role in a worldwide economic downturn when what was then Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., filed for bankruptcy.
It’s striking how clearly and accessibly most of this comes across. At one point, business matters affecting the Lehmans spin so out of control that the video projected on the semicircular cyclorama does so as well. Excellent as is this effect, it was even more surprising at the Armory when the turntable set itself spun around at a dizzying pace.
As the versatile actors wend their way through the play, the set moves almost continuously as a pianist (Candida Caldicot), visible down left, accompanies the action playing Nick Powell’s faultlessly mood-setting music. Jon Clark’s stunning lighting makes many superb adjustments, and potently effective sound effects co-designed by Powell and Dominic Bilkey provide additional dramatic underpinning.
At the unforgettable conclusion, after we’ve watched Beale, Godley, and Lester act their hearts out for over three hours, a cohort of fourteen supernumeraries appears, steps up into the larger office, and huddles along one side of the table. The image offers a frontal view of what can be seen from the rear in a photo of the firm’s employees, shot from a window across the way, as they gathered to hear of the company’s closing. That photo was reproduced in the Armory production’s program but is not included in the Broadway Playbill, so the point is likely to be lost on many theatregoers.
The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t bang you over the head with its moral lesson about how the money-hunger at Lehman Brothers participated in the soiling of the so-called American dream. Just watching the play is lesson enough.
The Lehman Brothers. Nederlander Theatrem 208 W. 41st Street, NYCm Through January 2022
Photos: Julieta Cervantes