A three and half hour play with only three actors spanning 163 years might not be your idea of entertainment, but the National Theatre’s production of The Lehman Trilogy is one of the most exciting theatrical events to be seen in New York in over 50 years. Making its North American premiere at the Park Avenue Armory, Sam Mendes’ swiftly paced production of Stefano Massini’s play features Simon Russell Beale (often called the finest classical actor of his generation), Ben Miles (Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare’s production of Wolf Hall), and Adam Godley (Broadway’s 2002 Private Lives and 2011 Anything Goes), three of the most versatile British actors alive today. While The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of the three brothers who founded the family institution that eventually became one of the leading financial firms on Wall Street and later precipitated the crash of 2008, it also recounts the story of the rise of modern banking with the financial history of the last 150 years.
Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy began life as a radio play in 2012, and appeared on Italian television in 2015. First staged in Paris in 2013, it has been translated into 14 languages. The European version is reputedly five hours long and used 12 actors. The play has been adapted for English-speaking audiences by Ben Power for Sam Mendes’ National Theatre production which is currently in New York before it reopens in London. Mendes has said that he was given three years to develop the play and realized in workshop that it could be performed with only three actors. The magnificent results are now on display at the Park Avenue Armory.
This epic story is narrated by the actors, mainly in the third person, with a few bit of occasional dialogue. Power’s translation keeps the poetic nature of the original script. Es Devlin’s remarkable setting is a revolving glass cube with three rooms inside, a conference room with modern furniture, a waiting room and a storage room with boxes. There is also a doorway in the middle of one of the sides that occasionally frames the actors. The set turns swiftly for each of the many scenes and looks entirely different each time. The glass walls are often used to scrawl the new names of the firm as it evolves and for mathematical calculations. It is backed by a cyclorama on which Luke Halls’ video atmospheric projections are seen: seascapes, skyscapes, Alabama fields, and New York cityscapes which grow ever upward as the 19th century becomes the 20th, letting us witness the growth of the city as the Lehman Brothers firm also expands. Eventually there is a coup de théâtre which shows Wall Street as it spins out of control, a perfect visualization of this historic phenomenon. Jon Clark’s vivid lighting design at times uses color, other times dims the lights to suggest torrential rain storms.
Although the play is silently framed by the office workers awaiting the ominous phone call on Sept. 15, 2008 at both the beginning and the end, the play actually starts when Jewish Heyun Lehmann (Beale) arrives in Manhattan from Bavaria on September 11, 1844 to open a fabric store. He is given a new name by an immigration officer: Henry Lehman. We next see him in Montgomery, Alabama, running his store when he is joined by his middle brother Emmanuel (Miles), and somewhat later the younger brother Mayer (Godley) arrives. Henry refers to himself as the Head, Emanuel The Arm, and Mayer The Potato as he has skin just like a peeled potato. Henry discovers that the locals need supplies for cotton growing and they branch into this line. Eventually, they discover that they can make more money if they become middlemen for cotton distribution. However, Henry dies of yellow fever in 1855, only 11 years after arriving in the U.S. Emmanuel becomes enraptured of New York and its Cotton Exchange and after the Civil War he insists that Mayer and he relocate to Manhattan with offices at 119 Liberty Street.
However, they discover that they should be in the banking business and the name is changed to Lehman Brothers Bank. Over the years as the country changes, they invest in coffee, trains, tobacco, coal and even become “merchants of money.” As the new century dawns they find themselves in aviation, entertainment, armaments, computers and finally in stock trading. The firm goes from Lehman Brothers Finance to Lehman Brother Corporation and finally to Lehman Holding Inc. By the time of the stock market crash of 2008, the last family member running the company had died in 1969 and the company had been broken up and sold several times. While costume designer Katrina Lindsay keeps all three men in the same formal three-piece suits throughout, it suggests that they kept their European values even as the country moved on into the 20th century.
The Lehman Trilogy is performed with two intermissions, just after the brothers’ move to Manhattan in 1867 after the Civil War and on the eve of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. The play also beautifully delineates the historic periods that go by: Antebellum South, Post-Civil War, the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, the Crash of 1929, the Great Depression, the War Years and the post-W.W. II boom. We also learn in a very easy way of the history of the modern finance system of the last 163 years.
Playing all of the characters, Beale, Godley and Miles begin with the three original brothers as well as sons, fiancées, wives and other businessmen they work with both in the South and in the North, changing their voices and demeanor for each. Beale’s Henry morphs into Emanuel’s son Philip (with the catch phrase “Now I must excuse myself. They’re waiting for me. .. I take my leave.”) in the firm from 1887 – 1947, while Miles’ Emanuel becomes Mayer’s son Herbert (“I have a problem with that”) who later leaves to become Governor of New York and Godley’s Mayer who ultimately plays Philip’s elegant, playboy son Robert now famous for his fabled art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beale plays at least 13 well-defined characters, and while the other actors do not play as many, each is as completely different from the others as possible. The accents change from German to Southern, to New Yorkese, to Greek, and Hungarian. It is a tour de force from all three actors and demonstrates their vast range.
The play also uses a series of metaphors that both define this world as well as add color to the storyline: tightrope walker Solomon Papronskij who walks between buildings on Wall Street daily for the entertainment of the stockbrokers never falling until the end, the light breeze that caresses Philip’s ear when he knows that he has heard an intimation of the future, Herbert’s objecting to things as being unfair before he goes into politics to do something about it, the endless rain when things go bad as a sort of objective correlative. The Judaism of the brothers undergoes change as they become Americanized and their sons know little or nothing about the customs of the old country.
The real beauty of Sam Mendes’ production is that the storytelling is mesmerizing. As the script has no scenic directions, all the visuals and scene breakdowns had to be created by Mendes and his remarkable team. Let us not forget pianist Candida Caldicot who plays Nick Powell’s original music through the play as well as Powell’s sound effects which add so much to the atmosphere. Of course, none of this would be possible without actors of the highest caliber who can play so many roles one after another, often doubling back to an earlier character as the sons come along and spar with their fathers. Epic in its telling, The Lehman Trilogy’s use of the third person narrators is like reading a very great novel like War and Peace – except here it all happens before us. While the last years are a bit rushed in summary as the Lehman Brothers exit the business, this is both unforgettable theater as well as an easy to follow history lesson in high finance and the development of the American economy from 1844 – 2008 told through the rise and fall of one dynamic family. The Lehman Trilogy is not to be missed by lovers of great acting, ingenious design, and epic storytelling.
The Lehman Trilogy (through April 20, 2019)
National Theatre and Neal Street Productions
Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue, between 66th and 67th Streets, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-933-5812 or visit http://www.armoryonpark.org
Running time: three hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions