The Lehman Trilogy on Broadway Review. Changing with the times, but enough?

The country has changed in the two and a half years since The Lehman Trilogy came to America, wowing audiences at the Park Avenue Armory with a theatrical epic, inventively staged and extraordinarily acted, if historically blinkered, that dramatizes the 164-year history of the Lehman Brothers – starting with the arrival in America of the first of the three brothers, Hayum Lehmann, in 1844, and ending (three and a half hours later) with the collapse of the venerable financial institution in 2008.  Opening now on Broadway, “The Lehman Trilogy” is also different than it was in 2019, some of it in evident response to the changing times. The question is whether it has changed enough.

An obvious change is that Adrian Lester has now been cast as one of three performers who portray the original three brothers, as well as all their descendants,  and all the people with whom they come into contact with over the decades, every man, woman and child. (The other two cast members, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley, remain the same.) Given what a fine actor Lester has proven to be (in such plays as Red Velvet and the film Primary Colors) it is hard to believe that he is only now making his Broadway debut; it’s an impressive one.

It would be glib to presume that the casting of this prominent Black actor had anything to do with one of the oft-heard criticisms of the 2019 production – that it glossed over the Lehman’s complicity in slavery, their first fortune having been made by serving as cotton brokers for antebellum plantations in the South. (I called it a dramatization of history “minus the dark parts.”) That criticism would certainly only be amplified in the two years since, given the heightened consciousness of American racism after the killing of George Floyd.

In what clearly seems to be a response to the previous criticism and an acknowledgement of the greater awareness, the creative team has made various changes in the script to bring a bit more attention to the issue.

For example, in the Park Avenue Armory version, shortly after the end of the Civil War, there is a line from the Lehman’s physician:

“Doctor Beauchamp,

who once treated the children of those slaves for chickenpox, shakes his head

the way he once did about yellow fever:
It is not enough to claim freedom, Mr Mayer.
Now we must all learn to practice it. “

In the Broadway version, the first sentence is the same, but then the doctor says, more bluntly:

“Surely you knew it could not last, Mr Mayer?
Everything that was built here
was built on a crime.
The roots run so deep you cannot see them
but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.
It had to end this way.”

And then (crucially, I think) Mayer Lehman’s response:

“Mayer doesn’t want to hear.”

(There is still no direct mention of antisemitism, though; its absence feels historically unlikely.)

A century later, in 1965, Bobby Lehman (a grandson of one of the founding brothers,  portrayed by Godley)  now says, speaking of himself in the third person (as the characters in the play tend to do) :

“The great grandchildren of the slaves that once picked Lehman’s cotton now march over bridges, demand their rights. America is changing and Bobby wants to change with it. “

“The Lehman Trilogy” also tacitly acknowledges another major event that has transpired since it was last produced in New York, with a reference for the first time to the 1918 flu:

“When the soldiers brought the influenza back from Europe and half a million Americans died,” we’re told, a Greek immigrant named Georgios Petropoulos “saw the priests collecting the bodies off the street in Philadelphia, and the protests in San Francisco, against the wearing of masks.” – which got a loud laugh from the masked theatergoers.

If the pandemic is given a nod in the script now, its presence hasn’t changed much about the production. Other shows on Broadway have eliminated their intermissions. “The Lehman Trilogy” still has two. The play is still three and a half hours long.

To my surprise, the length didn’t bother me (even though I’ve been complaining about the length of other shows this season that are far shorter.)  “The Lehman Trilogy” remains a rip-roaring multi-generational saga, directed by Sam Mendes to feel like a novel come to life, and a fugue, and a whimsical folk tale. We watch as three Old World Jews from Bavaria switched from selling fabric, to selling raw cotton, to brokering cotton, to becoming bankers, and in the process remade American capitalism, without changing out of their 19th century frock coats and top hats. We see them transformed into the next generations, full of memorable characters, such as Herbert Lehman, who was pushed out of the family firm and forced into a second career as governor of New York and then United States Senator; and Bobby Lehman (the one who now talks about the Civil Rights Movement), smartly modern, mildly hedonistic, 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.”

I was awed at the Park Avenue Armory by the play’s design, which I thought looked like something created for the World’s Fair. Es Devlin’s set was a huge glass cube, containing four offices, which revolved at regular intervals, 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.

I was now no longer as awed by the set and projections, which still exist on Broadway, but they feel crammed into the proscenium stage of the relatively cramped Nederlander Theater. It doesn’t fit the new theater as well as it did the old one.

Could the same be said of the timing? I wondered whether, for all its impressive stagecraft and astonishing acting, the play’s moment has simply passed, at least for me.

The day after I saw the play, I happened to be near 119 Liberty Street, the address the play explicitly tells us was the Lehman Brother’s first office in New York, occupied in 1860 after they moved from Alabama. There is no 119 Liberty Street anymore, not that I could find. There is Four World Trade, an office building built in 2014, and a shopping mall with a Banana Republic. If 119 Liberty Street still existed, it would be down the block from the memorial for the destroyed World Trade Center, and directly across the street from Zuccotti Park,  which was taken over by protesters in 2011 as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement against economic inequality. Not far away is the slave market established by the Common Council of New York City in 1711. The history of even a few blocks of the city suggests the many riveting stories one could put on stage, surely most effectively when the moment feels right for them.

The Lehman Trilogy
Written by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Sam Mendes
at the Nederlander Theater, through January 2, 2022
Running time: about three hours and 30 minutes including two intermissions
Tickets: $49 to $299 ($40 lottery)
Cast: Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley, with Adrian Lester
Scenic design by Es Devlin, costume design by Katrina Lindsay, video design by Luke Halls, lighting design by Jon Clark, composer and sound design by Nick Powell, co sound design by Dominic Bilkey, music direction by Candida Caldicot, movement by Polly Bennett 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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