Whose life rates an epic poem? What celebrated figure – like the wily, windblown Odysseus who inspired Homer – has the mix of virtue and vice, flaws and strengths, to be mythologized in verse? I would nominate Martin Luther King, Jr. Or Count Leo Tolstoy. Harriet Tubman would have tales to tell. But … the Lehman brothers? What did the financiers ever do that was worth being enshrined in art? They and their progeny amassed obscene amounts of money over 150 years, only to be wiped out in the 2008 crash. Such is the challenge faced by the cast and crew of The Lehman Trilogy, a theatrical event that’s both sprawling in scope and cunningly concentrated in execution. Even if you despise Wall Street and remain blissfully ignorant of supply-side economics, three superb British actors and one savvy director make you care about a clan of cold-blooded capitalists for almost three and a half hours.
The unusual provenance of The Lehman Trilogy is worth noting. Originally written as a radio drama by Italian actor-playwright Stefano Massini, the piece was broadcast in 2012, before Massini created stage versions in France, and eventually at Piccolo Teatro in Milan in 2015. At the time, it was five hours and performed by cast of 12. English director Sam Mendes discovered the piece and decided to adapt it for an English audience. Partnering with adaptor Ben Power for a lengthy development period, Mendes trimmed two hours and boiled the cast down to three actors – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley – playing everyone from toddlers to a rabbi to flirtatious Southern belles. The resulting production opened to raves at the National Theatre last year. After its current run at the Park Avenue Armory, it travels to London’s West End for 12 weeks.
The origins of the Lehmans’ financial empire is a remarkable immigrant success story. In 1844, Heyum Lehmann (Beale) arrives on the dock in New York City, a Bavarian Jew with little money in his pocket. His first impression of the metropolis is a perpetual-motion machine, an endless chain of supply and demand:
Seen up close on this cold September morning, America looked like a musical box.For every window that closed,another would open.For every cart that vanished around a corner, another would appear. For every customer who got up from a cafe table, another would sit down.
Three years later, the newly minted Henry Lehman has set up a supply store in Montgomery, Alabama, selling tools, goods and suits to plantation owners and their foremen. Henry is joined by his younger brothers Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley), and the three siblings expand the business. They move into buying raw cotton from the plantations and selling it to mills up north, pocketing the difference. They are middlemen. Eventually Emanuel opens an office in New York, and business booms. They become a bank, investing in coal, iron, coffee and railroads. While all three are focused diligently on thrift, growth and success in the New World, they have distinct, often clashing personalities. Henry is cautious and inward, the “head.” Emanuel is impetuous and ambitious, the “arm.” And Mayer, well, he’s dubbed “potato” due to his smooth cheeks in want of a beard. In fact, as the brothers age and die and their children inherit the business, it’s Emanuel’s scion, Philip, and Philip’s son, Robert, who will steer the firm through the Great Depression and into the modern age of Wall Street high finance. Moony Mayer’s son, Herbert, goes briefly into the family trade, but opts for politics.
The term patriarchal has become a pejorative term in these woke, feminist times, evoking something sexist and repressive. But the descriptor is perfectly apt when used here, as matter-of-fact as the 20 patriarchs of the Old Testament. The Lehman Trilogy is a historical, patriarchal epic, explicitly and nearly exclusively concerned with men: brothers, sons and fathers. Women exist only to briefly fascinate or irritate the men during courtship or marriage, and to produce children. That’s one of the piece’s weaknesses, the nearly suffocating and unexamined maleness of it. The parade of women as flirts or scolds would be tedious if any female character stuck around for more than a minute.
The other problem is a certain diminishment of returns as the three hours wear on. The first act is the strongest, as we get to know each brother and the narrative traces the evolution of the business as it follows the American timeline: slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, rapid industrialization and urbanization in the North. Massini (and Power) pattern the poetic text with dreams, moments of inspiration that are breezes caressing the face, and Homer-ish epithets (a child’s face “with cheeks like two melons”). Psychology and subtle characterization are replaced by archetype and repetition, which can grow wearying after three hours.
The piece loses force in its final third. As the descendants of the brothers drift further from investing in actual goods and services, and enter the world of “pure money,” credit and leveraging debt, the storytelling bones start to warp and crumble in a mass of theatrical razzle-dazzle and flash-forwarding. (Es Devlin’s rotating glass-cube set and Luke Halls' wall-sized video projections provide plenty of eye candy.) The nearly 40 years between Robert “Bobbie” Lehman’s death and the 2008 crash whiz by, and heaven help you if don’t know what led to the economic meltdown. (You’re better off streaming The Big Short or Margin Call).
So it’s testament to the virtuoso acting by Beale, Miles and Godley, under Mendes’ meticulous, highly choreographed staging, that you still lean forward as the emotional stakes drain and the telescoping of boardroom turnover/takeover becomes a bit banal and deadening. Still, by the end of this remarkable saga of greed and hard work, after the deaths of several salesmen, you must admit: Attention has been paid.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.