'The Lehman Trilogy': Theater Review

Courtesy of Stephanie Berger
From left: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles in 'The Lehman Trilogy'
Likely to be the theater event of the season.
4/20/2019

Sam Mendes directs Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles as the German-Jewish immigrant brothers, and the entire banking dynasty they founded, in this masterful chronicle of the American Dream corrupted.

Design innovator Es Devlin's set for The Lehman Trilogy is a giant glass box, an 800-square-foot rotating, transparent cube within which three extravagantly resourceful actors inhabit the dreams, doubts and ambitions of three siblings who founded a mighty financial empire, along with their various spouses, descendants and successors over the course of more than 160 years that ended in disgrace. If that encasement might give the impression of a museum piece, an airless history lesson, don't be fooled. This is theatrical storytelling at its most thrilling, a work of novelistic sweep and operatic crescendos, as rich in incisive character detail as it is in breathtaking visual coups.

Adapted into English with a surgeon's skill, a poet's grasp of language and not a hint of didacticism by Ben Power from Italian writer Stefano Massini's epic work, the play has been condensed from its original five-hour form into three one-hour parts to be consumed in a single sitting.

And in Sam Mendes' exhilarating production, that time flies by just like the decades that separate Henry Lehman's arrival in New York from Bavaria in 1844 from the ignominious collapse in 2008 of Lehman Brothers, the banking giant built up by his siblings and their heirs, which became synonymous with the subprime mortgage crisis and the crippling economic recession that followed.

In terms of scope, Massini's play goes far beyond the history of a single family of German-Jewish immigrant merchants, though their flawed humanity and their increasingly hubristic fever to harvest from the land of opportunity is very much its narrative engine. It goes further even than chronicling the dizzying evolution of their multi-tentacled commercial enterprises, from a humble store selling suits and fabric into an international financial monolith, though it does this with the unrelenting hold of a ripping good page-turner.

The larger dimension of The Lehman Trilogy serves as a prism through which we mourn the loss of America's innocence. Early on, that symbolic death is pegged to the Civil War, but that conflict becomes just one step in an ongoing process of shattering inexorability — with the rise of capitalism, consumerism, globalization — that brings us to our present disillusioned state, a bitterly divided, scorched-earth nation of haves and have-nots.

Over three generations, the Lehmans' trajectory steadily distances them, first from the raw materials they trade in and then from the industries for which they serve as brokers, until commodities like cotton, iron, coal, coffee, tobacco and even military arms become just words. The transition is complete when Philip Lehman, the first son born in New York, triumphantly declares, "We use money to make more money."

There's been no shortage of plays, movies and books dealing with the financial crisis. But The Lehman Trilogy stands apart because it has less interest in the mechanisms of the crash — or even in such standard subtext as the deification of wealth and the cult of greed — than in the ways the psychological groundwork for it all is woven into the very fabric of the American Dream.

It pulls us in on an intimate human level, coaxing us to invest in Henry (Simon Russell Beale) from the instant he steps off the boat, wearing his best shoes and nervously clutching his single suitcase as the Statue of Liberty appears out of the morning mist. Likewise, his younger brothers, Emanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley), who arrive consecutively over the next six years.

"Henry's the head. Emanuel's the arm. And Mayer? He's what is needed between them. So the arm doesn't crush the head and the head doesn't humiliate the arm."

Even as each subsequent generation becomes colder, hungrier, more cynically driven; even as the last family member expires, making way for the sharks of the trading division to take over, they're all still played by the same three protean actors wearing the same black 19th-century frock coats. So the spirits of the original characters linger throughout. Time and geography are porous and inextricably bonded — past, present and future, North and South, Old World and New. When Henry, Emanuel and Mayer physically return at the end, reciting the Kaddish in their original Alabama clothing store as chaos descends on New York, it's unexpectedly affecting, a parable of violated faith.

But Massini and Power never risk oversimplifying the saga into a tragedy of corrupted innocents. From the start, as the brothers set up shop in Montgomery, their eye for a business opportunity causes them to overlook the sticky moral questions of acting as middle-men between the slave-owning plantations and the cotton mills of the North, with their voracious appetite for "Alabama gold." After the Civil War, as the South lies in ruins, state-funded reconstruction provides another gateway. That development is amplified in a later echo at the end of World War II, when it's deemed impractical to hit pause for the traditional shiva that follows a family funeral: "Because war is good for business, but recovery will be even better."

In perhaps the play's most chilling moment, Emanuel looks on with a mix of shock and marvel as the frighteningly ambitious young Philip (Beale) takes the wheel in a railway investment negotiation, extracting a $9 million profit guarantee without even raising his voice. And when the already marginalized Emanuel and Mayer propose investing in much-needed housing for the workers of American industry, Philip coolly dismisses their plan and gets board approval to invest instead in the Panama Canal, thus securing a cut of the entire world's commerce.

But if Philip is scary, his son Bobbie (Godley) grows up to be even more so. In one mesmerizing scene, he cavorts at the racetrack in 1929, surrendering to the aggressive charms of wily divorcee Ruth Rumsey (Beale, hilarious) while the death toll of stockbrokers driven to suicide by the Wall Street Crash climbs. As Philip despairs about the company's future, Bobbie calmly charts a course in which they ignore the panic, letting the weaker banks fail and digging in their heels until the government's need for strong financial institutions turns in their favor.

The play employs third-person narration to an audacious degree, and yet, under Mendes' unerring directorial hand it never feels static or cumbersomely expository. For such a long, dense narrative, it's unusually nimble, laced throughout with the wit and invention of great story theater, the chief requirement of which is gifted actors able to slip from one character to another with ease. Here they use nothing more than their voices, body language, a tilt of the head or a shifting facial expression.

Beale, as always, is superb, creating too many distinct characters to count. He brings somber gravitas to Henry, who "is always right," a funny, flirty lightness to the 19-year-old Southern belle who becomes Mayer's wife, and precocious fastidiousness to the adolescent Philip that grows into brusque self-assurance in adulthood. "He didn't try to win… he decided to win."

The steely, charismatic Miles tends to play the sterner characters; Emanuel is the muscle that first gets them into New York, approaching a strategic marriage with the same determination he brings to growing their cotton business. Later, he comes on like the Mob boss of the trading floor as Lewis Glucksman, the son of Hungarian immigrants, who ends up running Lehman Brothers.

Godley is mild-mannered, almost self-effacing as Mayer, nicknamed "the potato" for his smooth skin upon arrival in America at 19. He becomes a squalling infant, a clever young brat, and maintains a subtle hint of playfulness even when Bobbie is at his most ruthless.

The English-language version was developed for the National Theatre through extensive collaborative workshops with the cast and creative team, which accounts for the startling clarity of the storytelling. Even if part three, The Immortals, contains some digressions that make it slightly less compact than parts one (Three Brothers) or two (Fathers and Sons), this is a huge, sprawling work of astonishing consistency and dramatic urgency. That Mendes has gone from staging The Ferryman — a large-canvas play of an entirely different nature — to this in such a short time shows him to be a theater director in peak form.

Much of the production's impact is due also to the genius of the design elements, housed to perfection in the massive Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory, arguably New York's most imposing theatrical performance space. (It runs for just a month ahead of a 12-week return engagement in London's West End starting May 11.) Devlin's transparent cube, furnished in minimalist contemporary office style right from the start, with stacks of packing cartons, sits on a glassy stage floor that can evoke the ocean or a street pooling with rain puddles in a storm. The use of cinematic underscoring, the majority of it coming from music director Candida Caldicot on piano at the side of the stage, also is essential to the vitality of the piece, as is Jon Clark's textured lighting.

As important as Devlin's glassed-in playing space is the curved rear wall behind it, like a 1950s Cinerama screen, which expands and contracts with Luke Halls' stunningly atmospheric projections. These shift from an Alabama cotton field to an offshore view of Manhattan in 1860 that moves in tighter and tighter on what would become the Financial District, eventually showing just the upper reaches of skyscrapers. The video sticks largely to a monochromatic palette, saving its violent reds for the nightmares that will haunt the various Lehmans over the years. Halls' masterstroke is the brooding German Expressionist-style visuals and staticky skies of Black Thursday on Wall Street.

The virtuoso scene that drew spontaneous applause on opening night is an extended sequence in the 1960s, in which the three actors dance a maniacal twist as the Old Guard drifts into obsolescence at Lehman Brothers and the gung-ho new trading division's profits soar. Bobbie is the last remaining family member in the line, his twist transforming into a grotesque death twitch, but as the song playing faintly beneath the scene tells us, "The Beat Goes On." The Dream may be tarnished beyond repair, but it never dies.

Venue: Park Avenue Armory, New York
Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles

Playwright: Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
Director: Sam Mendes
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Music and sound designer: Nick Powell
Video designer: Luke Halls
Music director: Candida Caldicot
Movement director: Polly Bennett
Production: The National Theatre, Neal Street Productions, in collaboration with Park Avenue Armory
Presented by Park Avenue Armory