When you see Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy at the Nederlander Theatre, and you must because it is a majestic triumph which will win many awards and perhaps a Pulitzer, view it with an expansive perspective. Acutely directed by Sam Mendes, with a superb adaptation by Ben Power, the production’s themes highlight the best and worst of human attributes and American values. We see prescience and blindness, preternatural dreams and uncanny business acumen, along with unethical, unfettered capitalism and greed. If we are honest, we identify with this humanly drawn family, that hungers to be something in a new world that offers opportunity where the old world does not.
Humorously, poetically chronicling the Lehmans from their humble German immigrant beginnings, the brilliant Simon Russell Beale, (Henry Lehman), Adam Godley (Meyer Lehman), and Adrian Lester (Emanuel Lehman), channel the brothers, their wives, sons, grandsons, great grandsons, business partners and others with an incredible flare for irony and imagined similitude. Prodigiously, they unfold the Lehman brothers’ odyssey from “rags to riches” with a dynamism as fervent and ebullient as the brothers’ driving ambition which rose them to their Olympian glory in America.
The production is an amazing hybrid of dramatic intensity. It is an epic tone poem and heartbreaking American fairy-tale. It is a tragicomedy, a veritable operatic opus under Mendes’ guidance, Es Devlin’s fantastic, profound scenic design and Luke Halls’ directed, vital video design. Intriguingly, it remains engaging and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful through two intermissions and three hours. By the conclusion, you are exhausted with the joy, sorrow and profoundness of what you have witnessed. Just incredible! Three actors delivered the story of four generational lifetimes with resonance, care and extraordinary vibrancy. They are so anointed.
At certain moments the audience was silent, hushed, enthralled; no seals barked or coughed out of fear of disturbance. Perhaps this occurred because The Lehman Trilogy threads the history of antebellum America and the story of the most culturally complex, diverse and extreme (i.e. poverty and wealth), city on the globe, New York. Indeed, the audience watches transfixed by the magic of what “made in America” means, threading the poisoned soil of slavery to what “made in America” means today in an incredibly complicated and even more slavery poisoned institutionalization of economic corruption etherealized.
One of the subtle arcs of Massini’s and Powers’ Trilogy follows the growth of this corruption in one family as they expand their business. The brothers’ ambitious fervor morphs in each generation (the actors of the succeeding generation play the sons and grandchildren), until by the end, when Lehman Brothers is sold and divided up and sold again, when there are no more Lehmans involved in running an empire that still carries its name, we understand that outside forces and individuals have caused the interior dissolution via excess, greed and spiritual debauchery.
Especially powerful is the last segment of the Trilogy, “The Immortal.” After the second segment, “Fathers and Sons” concludes with the first and second suicide of the 1929 crash, the third segment continues with more suicides on that cataclysmic day as the debacle of selling goes on. And the segment ends in September 2008 a minute before the fateful phone call that no one is bailing out Lehman Brothers which becomes the sacrificial lamb that fails, while other firms are “too big to fail.” How American!
It is a keen irony that Lehman Brothers survives the 1929 crash. Indeed, they make it through the Civil War, WW I, the stock market crash and the great depression and WW II. Lehman Brothers is successful after the internet bubble burst and it moves steadily into the mortgage market mess in the 21st century until…it collapses. During the last Lehman generation, we watch how Bobby’s takeover and presidency shifts the perspective with regard to personal life and business; all is reform, even his religious observance. No longer do the Lehmans sit Shiva for the passing of a Lehman according to Talmudic Law; only three minutes of silence are allowed to recognize the passing of Bobby’s Dad, Phillip, before the business of Wall Street resumes in their offices.
Thus, by degrees, Lehman Brothers meets the future; the sun never sets on the huge investment bank with global centers everywhere which Bobby and his partners govern. The name becomes “immortalized,” even as Bobby symbolically dances into the future decades after his death. Adam Godley’s nimble movements are phenomenal in this dancing scene with the actors symbolically twisting Lehman Brothers into the success of the Water Street Trading Division and beyond. It’s hysterical and profound, a dance of ironic immortality which can’t last. No one thought Lehman Brothers could go bankrupt, but it is fated to. According to the brilliant themes and symbols (golden calf, golden goddess, tight rope walker), and ironies of Massini and Power, Lehman Brothers reaches its own apotheosis in the last moments of the production. Then the phone call comes and it’s over.
It is clear that after the last Lehman dies, others who take over (Peterson, Glucksman, Fuld), apply their own meretricious agenda on Lehman Brothers, defying good will and sound sense. Indeed, the entity that falls to its destruction is nothing like what Henry, Mayer and Emanuel and their progeny imagined or would have supported. Is this disingenuous? Massini, Powers, Mendes and the actors make an incredibly convincing case. Without the guiding influence of Judaic values and the mission that only the original family understood, Lehman Brothers is “Lehman” in name only. All of the meaning, value and venerable history have been sucked out of it.
Thus, is revealed the import of the conclusion. The once sound mission of Lehmans, under-girded by the values of the Talmud and Judaism is no more on the material plane. It exists in an infernal infamy, a cautionary tale of the ages. So it is fitting that in the last scene in the afterlife, one minute before that fateful phone call on September 15, 2008, Henry, Meyer and Emmanuel say Kaddish, a prayer for Lehman Brother’s demise. The dead bury the dead. Pure genius.
Massini’s/Power’s metaphors, Mendes and the actors understand and realize beautifully. They toss them off as so many luscious grains to feed off intellectually, if you like. Es Devlin’s revolving through history, glass house structure (just begging to have stones thrown at it), which the actors write on graffitizing the importance of Lehmans’ historical name-changing success is amazing. The turning platform and “see through” glass adds a profound conceptional component to the themes of money, power, finance and the energy of entrepreneurship. Luke Halls’ impactful video projections (the terrifying dream sequences, the burning Alabama cotton fields, the digital signals of the derivatives markets, etc.), enhance the actors’ storytelling with power. So do Jon Clark’s lighting design and Nick Powell’s sound design. Not to be overlooked Katrina Lindsay’s (costume design) and other creatives must be proud to have helped to effect this production’s greatness. They are Dominic Bilkey (co-sound design), Candida Caldicot (music director), Poly Bennett (movement).
There is more, but let peace be still and award The Lehman Trilogy sumptuously, all voting members of various organizations. It is just spectacular. For tickets and times go to their website: https://thelehmantrilogy.com/