“The Lehman Trilogy” represents the kind of prestige Broadway production that invariably causes a certain class of well-heeled, culturally savvy New Yorkers to salivate over tickets.
It hails from London — the National Theatre no less! It stars Simon Russell Beale — all but a living legend over there! Has he ever received a bad review? It’s directed by Sam Mendes! He’s got an Oscar and a Tony and was once married to Kate Winslet! Quick — call Telecharge, honey, we’ve got a dinner party to go to next week!
The show, which was scheduled to open in the spring of 2020, will probably still draw these audiences, although the comparative dearth of fancy dinner parties in the jittery pandemic era may put a small dent in the show’s potential. There’s also the matter of the production having previously been seen, in a sellout run, at the Park Avenue Armory in 2019.
But for all the breathless anticipation (slightly less breathless now of course), the play these anxious ticket-buyers will see is, well, hardly a play at all. Yes, it features three sterling British stage actors, with the estimable Adrian Lester and Adam Godley joining Beale. It has been sleekly staged by Mendes on a supremely chic set by Es Devlin: a revolving glass-walled cube surrounded by a cyclorama on which moody, beautiful projections appear.
But for all its surface stylishness, “The Lehman Trilogy” is a stolid and rather monolithic slab of a show: a three hour and twenty minute talking Wikipedia page, so dense with description and narration, and devoid of drama — or even dialogue — that watching it is like watching very expensive paint dry, or maybe, to use a more apt metaphor, listening to cotton growing.
The show’s stultifying prosiness probably derives from its original source: an Italian novel by Stefano Massini, later adapted by him for the stage, and in turn adapted (and, believe it or not, shortened) by Ben Power. Unfortunately, neither Massini nor Power has managed to fully lift the story of the rise and fall of the famed — now infamous — banking powerhouse off the pages of the original book.
The trilogy (which it isn’t, really, but let it pass) proceeds in strictly chronological order, which also adds to the tedium, as the pacing inevitably has an “and-then-this-happened” quality that grows wearisome. It begins with Beale’s Henry Lehman arriving in America from Germany in 1844, settling somewhat improbably in Montgomery, Alabama, where he opens a small fabric store, of which we hear much description, delivered by Beale:
The room is small.
The floor is wood.
Slats nailed next to one another.
In all — he counted — 64.
And it creaks when you walk on it.
It’s hollow underneath.
Only one door
Of glass and wood
With the mezuzah nailed beside it.
Only one door
Facing directly onto the street
Onto the neighing of the horses
And the dust of the carriages
The creaking of the carts and the noise of the crowd.
The handle of red brass doesn’t open well.
Sometimes it gets stuck.
And that is by no means all we hear about this modest store — the description goes on for some time. So it goes throughout the duration of the show, as events and settings are described vastly more often than they are either depicted or actually staged. Here’s Lester’s Emanuel, who followed his older brother to America, on what he sees on his first visit to New York: “Children and old people. Orthodox Jews, Catholic priests, Chinese and Italians/Black families walking to the park. Card readers, tambourine players….”
What liveliness the production generates derives from the deep stage experience of the three performers, who are certainly actors of first-class abilities that are for the most part grossly underused here. True, each actor juggles several roles and each neatly delineates them. For example, Beale’s Henry dies midway through the first of three acts, and from there moves into roles including two wives of Lehmans and a young, precocious nephew of Henry’s, Philip Lehman, who will eventually grow up to be a driver of the business. But while Beale deftly varies these characters through his voice and his physicality — all while wearing the same black suit — it is a bit dispiriting to see an actor of his caliber gain the most audience affection by his cute portrayals of women and a little boy. Lester and Godley, who plays the youngest brother, Mayer, are no less versatile actors, and similarly play characters of various generations and (in Godley’s case) genders. But while one can admire their fluidity and stamina, the script offers little scope for emotional expression.
There is also some appeal in learning the slow rise and sudden fall of the brothers’ company. From selling fabric the brothers move into selling raw cotton, then becoming cotton brokers and, when the Civil War devastates the Southern economy and the cotton business, a banking concern. Eventually, of course, they establish an office in New York, where their business explodes in different directions — coffee, coal, iron, oil — as the company ultimately becomes a pioneer in the investment banking sector and a powerhouse stock trading company. But the writing style doesn’t really vary; the ratio of description or narration to dialogue is probably somewhere in the realm of 10 to 1.
“The Lehman Trilogy” has won much praise and acclaim; my assessment is certainly in the minority. And many people interested in the subject would probably prefer to learn the history of the Lehman Brothers journey by having it declaimed by gifted actors rather than, say, actually reading about it in a book or magazine. Buried under all the verbiage there may well be a potentially potent drama about the high price of ambition or the folly of overweening confidence. But I never found myself fully engaged, on even the most minimal emotional level. The show stuffs you with information but remains, to the end, a pretty dry, and long, evening of theater.
To be fair, an attempt to fully dramatize how the wealth of events — personal, national and global — affected the trio of enterprising German-born brothers and their many descendants (the Great Depression, World War II, etc.) would both be monstrously expensive and stretch well past three and a half hours. But the fact remains that, for this viewer at least, “The Lehman Trilogy” qualifies as a valiant experiment that more resembles a history lecture than a work of gripping theater.
“The Lehman Trilogy” opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Oct. 14. 2021.
Review photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Creative: Written by Stefano Massini; Adapted by Ben Power; Composer: Nick Powell; Directed by Sam Mendes; Scenic Design by Es Devlin; Costume Design by Katrina Lindsay; Lighting Design by Jon Clark; Sound Design by Nick Powell.
Producers: The National Theatre, Neal Street Productions, Lisa Burger, Caro Newling, Ambassador Theatre Group, Stephanie P. McClelland, Annapurna Theatre, Delman-Whitney, Craig Balsam/Heni Koenigsberg/John Yonover, Fiery Angel/Seth A. Goldstein, Starry Night Entertainment, Eli Bush, Adam Rodner, Gavin Kalin Productions, Paul & Selina Burdell/Bill Damaschke, 42nd.Club/Phil & Claire Kenny, CatWenJam Productions, Amanda Dubois, Glass Half Full Productions, Dede Harris/Linda B. Rubin, Kallish Weinstein Creative, Kors Le Pere Theatricals LLC, James L. Nederlander, No Guarantees, Mark Pigott KBE, KStJ, Playing Field, Catherine Schreiber/Adam Zell, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Richard Winkler/Alan Shorr/Dawn Smalberg, The Shubert Organization, Independent Presenters Network and John Gore Organization.
Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Adrian Lester and Aaron Krohn.