When the financial giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September 2008, President George W. Bush met the announcement with a nervous laugh. Another person in another time might have called it “a big f*****g deal.” That latter response is generally seen as being on the right side of history, and The Lehman Trilogy, which opened Thursday at New York’s Nederlander Theatre, shows why. It is an engrossing, welcome return to Broadway from the pandemic, and like its source material, it is a big deal.
Written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, The Lehman Trilogy, which had successful runs in London and at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, tells the story of the family who founded the titular institution, which grew to be one of the major players in the financial industry. At its peak Lehman Brothers seemed too big to fail and yet it did, a failure that contributed heavily to the start the Great Recession.
One thing makes this epic play—it begins in 1844 and ends in 2008—unique is its cast size: It has only three speaking parts. Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester play the Lehman brothers, who founded the original institution and their sons and grandsons, and dozens of other characters who cross race, gender and age barriers.
Even if the story of Lehman Brothers is not familiar, one knows from the start that things do not end well for the company. The big question is: How did all these smart people manage to screw this thing up? This is especially confusing given how the family overcomes adversity, first with the Civil War, which all but destroys their cotton business, and then Black Thursday and the 1929 Stock Market crash.
The Lehman Trilogy is at once a play about the rise and fall of a business and a family whose fortunes are inextricably linked. From a little shop in Montgomery, Alabama, the company grows into a huge cotton seller and eventually into a bank. Each step of the way, we see how the three brothers contribute something to the success and growth of the business and how it is passed on to their sons and grandsons.
The lives of the family members are informed by their religion. They are observant Jews, who pray regularly, sit shiva—albeit for gradually shorter lengths of time—and close business on the Sabbath—at least at first. As they become more assimilated, to the business world as well as the ways of America, old rituals fall by the wayside.
The play, which is directed by Sam Mendes, succeeds on all levels. That the actors, with all quick changes in character required, are able to keep the audience focus is nothing short of amazing. This is especially the case given the large amount of the play that is exposition—a lot of which is financial and business jargon—spoken directly to the audience. But the play never devolves into a lecture; it remains theater on a large scale, and Mendes always keeps the drama front and center.
While the cast is probably more familiar to British audiences, the range of the actors on display here should change that. Simon Russell Beale convincingly plays everyone from a titan of business to a flirtatious young woman—though as the latter I would advise him to not play hard to get.
In addition to his role as a founding brother, Adam Godley plays, among other things, a slinky seductress, a Southern businessman and Robert Lehman. His turn as Bobby, a smart businessman who lived life to the fullest and then some, brings down the house.
Adrian Lester, who is making his Broadway debut, moves with ease from being an intimidating, even ruthless businessman, a respected politician to a suckling child.
To call this a tour de force for the cast would be an understatement: There are so many tours and forces at play in this play.
And not to be forgotten is Es Devlin’s minimalist set: a simple, modern room filled with filing boxes that serves as setting for everything from a boat traversing the Atlantic to the Lehman corporate offices. Given the complex nature of the story, going simple was clearly the correct choice. The set also serves as the foreground for Luke Halls’ videos, which establish the location and tone and in more animated moments become thrill rides.
The 164-year trip that Lehman Brothers took was a thrill ride of its own, and that story, The Lehman Trilogy, makes for a much welcome welcome back to Broadway.
One sidebar to the play: The theater seems to have streamlined the vaccination and mask issues. Theatergoers should just have proof of vaccination and a picture ID ready. Masks were available for anyone who needed one, and getting into the theater was no more difficult than before the pandemic. If only they had masks with the logo for the play on them.
The Lehman Trilogy is running through January 2022 at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, New York. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn inside the theater at all times. For tickets and more information go to TheLehmanTrilogy.com.
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