The Lehman Trilogy, an inventively staged, extraordinarily acted, and historically blinkered theatrical epic, begins and ends with the collapse of the Lehman Brothers, the venerable financial institution, in September, 2008. But these moments serve as tiny bookends to what is really the main story being told at the Park Avenue Armory – the story of the three Lehman brothers, after their arrival in America in the 18th century.
Hayum Lehmann (Simon Russell Beale) was the first to emigrate from Bavaria, Germany, arriving in New York Harbor in 1844. Quickly changing his name to Henry Lehman, he moves to Montgomery, Alabama and opens a general store that sells fabric and suits. To help him in his business, he brings over his two younger brothers – Emanuel, nee Mendel (Ben Miles) in 1847, and Mayer (Adam Godley) in 1850.
Responding to the needs of their customers, the brothers expand their business little by little – selling seeds and tools to plantation owners; then becoming middlemen, or brokers, between the Southern plantation owners and the Northern mill owners, buying and selling raw cotton. After Henry dies young from yellow fever, and the conflagration of the Civil War, the two remaining brothers convince the governor of Alabama to invest the state’s money in the Lehmans so that they can rebuild the cotton trade and revive the economy. This is how the Lehman brothers become bankers. From there, they also join the coffee exchange, move to New York, invest in railroads, help create the newly built New York Stock Exchange. “A brilliant idea,” the brothers say. Now
instead of negotiating iron at the Iron Market, fabric at the Fabric Market
coal at the Coal Market, they created one market.” For “every type of thing you can imagine” but the things themselves don’t exist – only the words “iron,” “fabric,” “coal.” “A temple of words” – and, left unsaid, the birth of modern capitalism.
The three actors, who begin the play portraying the three Old World Jews in 18th century frock coats, never change costumes to portray all the people with whom the brothers come into contact – including the wives they woo, and the toddlers they sire – and then the succeeding generations of Lehmans who take over the business. Most memorably, these are the frighteningly astute Philip Lehman (Beale), Emanuel’s son; Herbert (Miles), Mayer’s son, whom Philip pushes out of the firm and who acquires a second career as governor of New York; and Bobby, Philip’s smartly modern, mildly hedonistic son (Godley), who takes the firm’s investments in a new consumer-oriented direction – airlines, cigarettes, and motion pictures, including the original (and wildly remunerative) “King Kong.” After the second intermission, the actors portray the non-Lehmans who took over the firm in the last 40 years of its existence, the least engaging of the three acts.
Written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, who conceived the show in 2012 as a five-hour radio play, the Lehman Trilogy has been adapted into English by Ben Power for London’s National Theatre. Its narrative feels like a spoken novel; the characters largely talk about themselves in the third person, with only occasional dialogue. Its language resembles a fugue, with poetic repetition and interweaving of phrases. Under the direction of Sam Mendes (artistic director of Donmar Warehouse, Oscar winner of American Beauty, currently represented on Broadway by The Ferryman), it takes on the whimsical feel of a folk tale. It is, in other words, almost anything but a conventional play.
The three and a half hours play out on a stage designed by Es Devlin that looks like something created for a World’s Fair – four offices, complete with conference room, on a floor of a modern corporate office building, contained under a glass cube, which revolves at regular interviews around a turntable set on the shiny stage floor, and placed in front of a huge curved cyclorama with video designer Luke Hall’s ooh-inducing projections of skylines and clouds, and even fiery abstract dreams. Pianist Candida Caldicot unobtrusively underscores the actors’ words with an original composition by Nick Powell.
One need not understand international finance to realize that the creative team was more interested in storytelling and stagecraft than historical accuracy, more focused on the personal stories of the Lehman men than in the wider implications and context of their success. There is, notably, almost no mention of slavery, nor Anti-Semitism. When Henry arrives in America in 1844, the cyclorama has a sweeping view of the gray expanse of Upper New York Bay punctuated by the towering Statue of Liberty.
But the Statue of Liberty wasn’t placed in the bay until 1885, as anybody with an American education would know.
Click on any photograph by Stephanie Berger to see it enlarged.
The Lehman Trilogy
Park Avenue Armory
Written by Stefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes.
Set design by Es Devlin, costume design by Katrina Lindsay, video design by Luke Halls, lighting design by Jon Clark. Composer and sound designer Nick Powell. Co-sound designer Dominic Bilkey. Music director Candida Caldicott. Movement director Polly Bennett. Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles.
Running time: 3hrs 35mins, including two intermissions.
The Lehman Trilogy is on stage through April 20th.
Completely sold out, but $45 rush