By Elyse Trevers
For theater lovers, attending a show like “The Lehman Trilogy” is like running a half-marathon. It’s a goal and an accomplishment. Running more than three hours, the show keeps the audience engaged through three acts and two intermissions.
Adapted from Stefano Massini’s 2016 novel-in-verse, and expertly directed by Sam Mendes, the story starts at the beginning in 1844 with the arrival of Henry Lehman to the US from Germany.
His hard work ethic and intelligence lead him to success, and soon his two younger brothers join him. Each of the three brothers has a distinctive personality and together they create a powerful team. Henry (Simon Russell Beale) is the ‘head,” Emmanuel (Adrian Lester ) is the “arm,” and the youngest, Mayer (Adam Godley) is referred to as the “potato” or spud, often serving as the intermediary and mediator between the older brothers’ sparring.
The fortunes and travails of the brothers follow the history of the US through the Civil War. The three men go from selling finished cotton goods to raw materials. Then they become ‘middlemen,” buying raw cotton in the South and selling it up North. The Lehman brothers go from cotton to coffee and eventually create a bank offering financial services and an investment company.
The brothers survive the stock market crash and the Great Depression, and in one very dramatic scene, Lester describes several stockbrokers who commit suicide. Constantly changing their business strategy, the Lehmans continue to flourish through WWII. The play ends with the bankruptcy of the financial institution. At that time, it was the fourth-largest financial institution in the country.
The success of the play is due, in great part, to the considerable skills of the three actors. They play all of the characters, old and young, male and female, with no change of costume or props. Later they play the progeny of the three brothers as each one leaves the business, making room for the younger generation.
They rearrange several cardboard cartons, creating the semblance of furniture. All the action occurs in a unique rotating transparent cube onstage ((Es Devlin – Scenic design.)
“The Lehman Trilogy” is like a dramatized audiobook, being read to the audience in the third person. Massini’s poetry is very much in evidence with the recurring motifs. It is lyrical and beautifully written.
As the brothers court their wives, there is repetition in the dialogue like the refrain of a song. When one of them has an idea, he notes ” a slight breeze whispering in his ear.”
As the three prosper and assimilate, their religious observations change. When Henry dies, the brothers close the business for seven days and sit shiva. Time passes and when the second brother dies, the shiva period is only three days. By the time son Phillip dies, there’s no shiva and the business remains open.
The first two acts are fast moving and fascinating, and the audience doesn’t notice the time passing. By the third act, the brothers are gone from the story, the pace quickens and play abruptly ends. The audience feels the satisfaction of having made it to the finish line. Along the way, it learned a bit of American history, of opportunity and of greed.