|THE LEHMAN TRILOGY|
It feels almost dangerous to call a great theatrical experience a “lesson,” a word that inevitably conjures up images of dry lectures on subjects one may not care about. But it’s still the one that applies most aptly to “The Lehman Trilogy,” the extraordinary British import about the history of one of America’s most notable (and notorious) investment banks, which has settled in for a (belated) Broadway run at the Nederlander Theater under the gorgeous direction of Sam Mendes.
This nearly 3 ½-hour play – adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s five-hour radio play – does more than recount the firm’s history. It teaches us about basic economics, the sociology of how family and culture change over time, the dangers of greed and so much more. Yet we never feel spoken down to; it’s the rare show that respects the intelligence of its audience.
Intriguingly, while the piece is framed by the complete collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the show does next to nothing to examine that pivotal moment (which can be seen as one of its few shortcomings). Instead, it focuses primarily on the first 150 years of the company’s storied history, from its beginnings in the 1840s as a Montgomery, Alabama fabric store run by three immigrant Jewish brothers from a small town in German – Henry (the amazing Simon Russell Beale), Emmanuel (an excellent Adrian Lester), and Meyer (the superb Adam Godley) -- to a giant behemoth where not even one of their descendants sits on the company’s board.
As we watch what happens over these many decades, the many members of the Lehman family literally weather fire and rain (the fabulous projections by Luke Halls create extraordinary panoramas behind Es Devlin’s ingenious, ever-revolving glass cube playing area) – not to mention the Civil War, the stock market crash of 1929 and World War II. Still, the firm created by those immigrant brothers literally rises from the ashes again and again, re-inventing itself as a cotton brokerage, a bank, and, finally, a worldwide financial giant that practically invented the modern trading department.
Since in many ways, the Lehmans are akin to the protagonists of a Greek tragedy, one might expect a huge chorus on stage, but this tremendous trio of actors are left to play not just the original brothers, but also their offspring, their grandchildren, and all the other characters in the show -- including various women, such as Bobby Lehman’s demanding wife Ruth.
Unfortunately, Beale, Lester and Godley are also often given the almost thankless task of imparting a lot of exposition, as well as engaging in the deliberate repetition of certain speeches and actions. Nonetheless, this consummate cast never falters in its conviction to do what Mendes and Power asks of them.
Any small flaws aside, “The Lehman Trilogy” is must-see theater whether one works on Wall Street, resides on Main Street, or lives anywhere in America. Just make sure you get to 41st Street before it closes.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Adrian Lester
208 West 41st Street
New York, NY 10036