Review: A Fairytale of American Dreams and Financial Nightmares in The Lehman Trilogy
Stefano Massini's three-part epic about the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers finally opens on Broadway.
The Lehmans dream. Emanuel, a Jewish Bavarian immigrant and one of the original Lehman brothers, dreams of trains ploughing through the sky. His clever son, Philip, dreams of an overburdened sukkah on the verge of collapse. Philip's eternally youthful son, Bobby, dreams of a modern-day Tower of Babel. These dreams keep them up at night, and depending on their interpretation, lead to fabulous wealth or financial ruin — sometimes both.
The interplay between dream and reality is what fuels the magic in Stefano Massini's The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Ben Power, and now making its breathtaking Broadway debut at the Nederlander Theatre. It tells the story of the fabled investment bank from its beginnings as a fabric store in 1850 to its spectacular collapse during the 2008 financial crisis. In a country as obsessed with dreams as America, it should be required viewing.
This isn't the first time The Lehman Trilogy has played New York. It performed a sold-out run at Park Avenue Armory in 2019, with plans to transfer to Broadway in March 2020. We all know how that panned out. But just like the Lehman family firm weathering the ceaseless rain of the Great Depression, The Lehman Trilogy has persevered through Covid to make its long-awaited Broadway debut.
It's a tale that is as enormous and improbable as America itself: It begins on a Sunday evening in September 2008, where a lonely janitor (Aaron Khron) is the only one left to turn out the lights on the global headquarters of Lehman Brothers. From the darkness emerges Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) to tell the audience of his dream of America, which always involved New York, but which began with a modest storefront in Montgomery, Alabama. He is soon joined by hotheaded younger brother, Emanuel (Adrian Lester), and the even younger Mayer (Adam Godley), who acts as a peacemaker between them. Through a combination of circumstance and ingenuity, a fabric store becomes a cotton brokerage becomes a bank becomes a multinational investment firm. Through periods of disease, war, and economic turmoil, the Lehmans grow their American dream until it becomes too big to fail...almost.
Massini and Power present the story of the Lehmans as a fairytale of capitalism, complete with supernatural happenings and magical powers: We learn of Mayer's irresistible smile, Philip's unblinking eye, and Bobby's crusade to dance the twist until he is 140 years old. All the while, the ghosts of Lehmans past narrate the action, like souls trapped in purgatory made to forever replay their legacy. The line between fantasy and reality is purposefully blurred so that it is often difficult to discern fact from fable — which is a fair simulation of what it feels like to invest in anything, be it a tech start-up or Broadway play.
But if the script reads like the Brothers Grimm, the show plays like a Netflix series under the superb direction of Sam Mendes. Presented in three digestible episodes, each roughly an hour long, The Lehman Trilogy flies by like that new show you cannot help but binge in one evening.
Mendes has a gift for turning simple things into grand theatrical moments you may never be able to forget, and he does it through simple yet effective design: Es Devlin's rotating glass-and-steel office provides the set for this sweeping historical epic, in which leather furniture and banker's boxes constitute the building blocks for the entire world. Jon Clark's ghostly lighting (some of it recessed within a drop ceiling) helps in the transformation, as does Luke Halls's video design, which displays the outside world on an ever-changing cyclorama. Katrina Lindsay costumes the actors in black frock coats, each customized for the slate of characters they are playing. And pianist Candida Caldicot underscores much of the action with Nick Powell's original music, creating the "magical music box" that Henry Lehman first encountered when he passed through Ellis Island.
The less-is-more approach extends to the performances, with the three principal actors each taking on a multitude of roles while never really losing touch with the three original brothers. Small physical gestures have the power to change everything: By briefly extending his arms from his sides, Beale conveys the enormity of Greek diner owner Georgios Petropoulos. A roll of his eyes and a purr in his voice turns him into Bobby's wife, Ruth; and, as if in a nightmare, a shift in vocal modulation causes him to transform from Ruth into Philip (that's wife into father) in an instant.
Godley is similarly expansive in his range, from the even-tempered Mayer to the haughty Pauline Sondheim to the manic Bobby. Lester (who replaced the originally cast Ben Miles) easily steps into the roles of the impatient Emanuel, the fiery Herbert, and the menacing Lewis Glucksman (who seems like he just teleported in from Goodfellas). We get an instant sense of the essence of these characters without anyone ever changing costume.
And when it comes to business, first impressions are everything. Massini and Power make it clear that Lehman might never have prospered without the trust Mayer engendered with his winning smile (strategic marriage also played a role). In the second part, when the Lehmans are giving an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Charles Dow asks, "If your bank had a recipe for making money, what would the core ingredient be?" Philip answers that the key to making money is money.
But what is money without trust — trust that the paper in your hand will be valued by anyone else with whom you may want to trade? Trust is the magic that turns dreams into reality in America, and like all magic, it can be used for good and evil. The Lehman Trilogy forces viewers to consider that the country that produced Henry Ford and Helena Rubinstein also produced Bernie Madoff and Elizabeth Holmes. When trust evaporates and the spell is broken, there is nothing left to the American dream but a rude awakening.