Spanning 164 years, The Lehman Trilogy is a stage spectacular from London’s National Theatre vividly dramatizing the saga of the famed American financial firm, Lehman Brothers. Italian writer Stefano Massini’s epic work was originally performed in Europe in 2013 and later became a novel. British author Ben Power’s adaptation premiered in 2018 to great acclaim and has now arrived on Broadway.
In the 1840’s, the three German Jewish immigrant Lehman brothers arrived in New York City. They made their way to Montgomery, Alabama, opened a fabric store and soon became successful cotton brokers who then insinuated themselves into the world of Wall Street. The rest is history, and that’s what this engrossing play explores. Amidst biographical details, The Civil War, W.W. I, The Great Depression, W.W. II, the computer revolution, the evolution of banking and the 2008 financial crisis are illustratively presented.
Mr. Massini’s play via Mr. Power’s incarnation is a laudatory model of dramatic writing with its intricate plotting. It’s comprised of finely etched connecting episodes conveying the personal meshed with the historical, rendered by an often-dry comic tone. The Jewishness of the protagonists is front and center. The dialogue is novelistic, the performers describe events and actions in the third person.
He had been dreaming of America.
The son of a cattle merchant
a circumcised Jew
with only one piece of luggage at his side, stood as still as a telegraph pole,
on Dock No. 4 in the port of New York.
Wearing costume designer Katrina Lindsay’s artful business attire is the distinguished British trio of Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester. They initially portray the three Lehman brothers, then in an exhilarating display of superior acting, they play a gallery of other major and incidental characters with Dickensian flair. Whatever the figure’s gender, age or varied social status, each actor offers many full-blooded characterizations emitting force and pathos through their expertly altered voices and grand physicality. Time passes, people die, and we feel sad having gotten to know them through these performers’ indelible depictions. For the Broadway incarnation, Mr. Lester replaces the unavailable Ben Miles who performed in the previous productions.
Director Sam Mendes colossal staging orchestrates the fast-paced actors in tandem with the tremendous stagecraft on display. The results are of seamless momentum, though the humanity is never overwhelmed by effects. Unseen, though ever present is music director Candida Caldicot’s dynamic piano playing of the sweeping original score by composer Nick Powell. Live music is rare in a Broadway play, it’s yet another of the production’s grand features.
Most integral to the production’s success is scenic designer Es Devlin’s glorious Philip Johnson’s Glass House-style setting filled with contemporary office furniture and many file boxes which are perpetually and strategically rearranged. This structure periodically revolves, accentuating the journey through time and space.
Surrounding it is Luke Halls’ bracing video design. Vintage images of the Statue of Liberty, the Financial District and clouds of smoke clearly connote shifting locales and the march of time. Highlights of Mr. Halls’ creations are the imagery for the crash of 1929 and the representation of the recent past with its sense of the set soaring upward past New York City apartment buildings. Lighting designer Jon Clark and sound designer Nick Powell’s high caliber contributions are perfect accompaniments.
Each of the three hour-long acts is entertaining and easily digestible with two intermissions providing opportunity for recharging. The totality of The Lehman Trilogy is theater of the highest level.
The Lehman Trilogy (through January 2, 2022)
National Theatre and Neal Street Productions
Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thelehmantrilogy.com
Running time: three hours and 25 minutes including two intermissions