Broadway’s ‘Lehman Trilogy’ Takes Capitalism, Turns It Golden
Two and a half years ago The Lehman Trilogy played in the cavernous armory of Park Avenue in New York, and from where this reviewer sat, he was lost, airless, and somewhat unintelligible. Somewhere to my left, a scene consisting of a fancy glass cube shaped into an office with various partitions spun jerkily as the story of the evolution of the famous banking family unfolded. The necks were strained, the hopes that the scene would come closer were dashed. And it lasted over three and a half hours.
Now The Lehman Trilogy opened on a conventional Broadway stage – praise yourself, no tight necks – and it’s a very different, much better show. The glass cube by designer Es Devlin is now directly in front of us, the actors too. Now staged on a conventional scale, it is an intimate and captivating play, beautifully performed, designed and lit. From epic quirk, it’s turned into an epic meal, even if it cleans up part of the story and bizarrely neglects to tell the rest.
Original company members Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley return, with Adrian Lester joining the cast for his Broadway debut. First, they play the original three Lehman brothers (Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel), and as the play progresses, many more characters – whatever the play, it’s a performative feast, and the three men are wonderful to watch. The characters exist as characters and also provide third-person historical information, story notes, and stage directions. It’s more of a radical commentary than a game.
Through the three sections, “Three Brothers”, “Fathers & Sons” and “The Immortal”, we travel from the founding of the Lehman Brothers company by Henry in 1844 in Alabama to its destruction, buried by the mortgage crisis in risk and subsequent global financial collapse of 2008. Beside the stage, the musical director of the show, Candida Caldicot, accompanies on the piano as an ironic musical complement to the unfolding of the story.
The playing of this piano, paired with the language and stunning projections behind Luke Halls’ cube, takes us from the cotton plantations of Alabama in the days of slavery to Manhattan in the 21st century, and underscores the dreamlike quality of the room. Sometimes New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty are in front of us. And when the Swinging Sixties strike, and the three actors do the Twist while standing on cardboard boxes, suddenly the projections sparkle and blur at an intense and bewitching speed.
The historical sweep of Lehman’s history encompasses racism, the immigration experience (the Lehmans were Bavarian Jews), sibling and family tensions, capitalism, computers, and pride. The pleasure of the play is less in the detail than in the narration. Stefano Massini’s screenplay, adapted by Ben Power, is one of wit, debate, poetry and soliloquy; no mess, complication and moral ambiguity. The script is very excited, like the brothers and their descendants, about a new opportunity to make money.
The three actors play not only the three brothers, but the wives Pauline and Babette. Then they play their sons, Philip and Herbert, and Philip’s wife, Carrie. They play Bobbie, the son of Philip and Carrie, and Ruth Lamar, Bobbie’s first vamp-to-the-max woman. It may be funny at the moment (especially the virtuoso succession of potential wives from Godley that Philip considers), but the pantomime accent and flutter of the female characters is squeaky. The play may have put women in the action, but it doesn’t know what to do with it, rather than just encouraging us to laugh at their overly drawn femininity.
As men, actors have a lot more dramatic leeway. Lester plays Emanuel as a powerful counterweight to Henry in the early years of the business. Russell Beale nails Philip’s chatty self-certainty (his haughty statements of “I’m taking my leave” stuck with me), Godley, in sunglasses, gives Bobbie a rock star style leg.
The play evokes the Great Depression of 1929 (and the suicides of people on Wall Street at the time), rather than the crash of 2008, when no Lehman was still alive to witness the eradication of the family business. Over time, the glass cube does the same.
The cube becomes a fourth figure, a palimpsest whose sides end up being marked with numbers from previous years – sums of money, war dead. The sign of the original company, presenting itself as an outfitter, is crossed out. “BANK” replaces it. The story is dense with details, but no criticism. We learn a lot about the history of the company (and this is also available online and in books), but not much about the characters of the brothers and their descendants beyond the whims and key moments of the company. company stories that give Lester, Russell Beale, and Godley the material for their acting tour de force.
“In the service of giving the past a golden shine, the coin patina on any cruelty and greed that drove the growth of a company like Lehman in the first place.“
As the world speeds up, so does the play – the screenings become vivid, mega-figurative financial abstractions, which have reminded this reviewer of so many finance-related plays and films (Enron, Margin call) that used the same device.
The play doesn’t criticize the Lehmans, but rather tells a very traditional story of capitalism – that family businesses were morally superior to the greedy, shark-like technocrats who came to take them over. By the way, we know an ultimate disaster is ahead – omens of doom in the room begin with plantation fires and the recitation of verses like “Everything is falling apart.” The three brothers have recurring apocalyptic dreams. A cold breeze is apprehensively mentioned, and the theatre’s air conditioning indeed floats over you (bring a jacket) – an unintentional but effective encounter between text and theater.
In the service of giving the past a golden shine, the coin patina on any cruelty and greed at the base of the growth of a company like Lehman in the first place. What difference is there in the company switching from clothes to cotton to railroads in an effort to make as much money as possible compared to the ruthless bankers of the following years? Instead, the piece humanizes and softens, placing the Jewish identity and immigrant status of the brothers at the center, or noting how an old-fashioned business mourns a figurehead differently from the soulless juggernaut. today.
When Bobbie died in 1969, the business passed first to Lewis ‘Lew’ Glucksman, then to Pete Peterson and finally to Dick Fuld. The family was gone. After Bobbie’s death, the play doesn’t really sketch out the last 39 years of Lehman Brothers. There’s a quick, quick commentary and some pious intonations about the scarecrow of unfettered capitalism, and that’s it, with a surprising final visual that feels more gestural than meaningful.
For a play so ruminating on the foundations of a giant of contemporary capitalism, it seems perverse to pass so quickly on the circumstances of its final act. The Lehman Trilogy is a wonderful play, with three glorious performances. But he’s more determined to commemorate what he insists on the basic decency of his ghosts, rather than sketching out the seeding of characters and mischief that led to Lehman’s destruction.