Theater review by Helen Shaw
On its face, the behemoth production The Lehman Trilogy tells the long story of the financial firm Lehman Brothers, whose collapse rang in the 2008 financial disaster. Adapted by Ben Power from an even longer Italian epic by poet Stefano Massini, this dizzying three-and-a-half-hour-long play starts with the moment in 1844 when the German-Jewish Hayum Lehmann—soon to be renamed Henry Lehman by an official—steps off a boat in the New York Harbor, his hands trembling. It ends where you know it will. Yet despite the nearly two centuries it uses as armature, Massini’s work is less about history than atmospherics: repeated images of mythology, ritual and dream. The American Dream is part of it, as are visitations from the brothers’ Bavarian past and nightmares—suffered by various Lehmans throughout the ages—about progress.
When we meet them, Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emmanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley) Lehman wear the long black coats of their homeland, and for 164 years, they never take them off. The dust of the old world clings to their coattails as the actors play dozens of characters who are part of the family business’s rise: the brothers’ children, their sweethearts, their grandchildren, plantation overseers, cotton buyers, sign painters, New York traders, Depression bankers and 1960s computer techs. Yet Es Devlin’s set is a 21st-century glass office on a turntable—a cube full of desks and bankers’ boxes, set against a curving cyclorama of black-and-white projections. Director Sam Mendes choreographs the frocked actors and the spinning, hypermodern set as though they were waltzing together; the ghosts of the past dance around inside the future, which dances around them in turn.
The play sometimes invites us to read the Lehmans’ boom-to-bust saga through metaphoric lenses: a rabbi’s pronouncement on the ages of man, the stages of Jewish mourning for the dead. If it weren’t for the superb work of Mendes, Devlin and the three astonishing performers, the heavy atmosphere might thicken into obfuscating fog. As it is, in the hasty final act, Massini tries to draw conclusions about a financial chaos he doesn’t understand—one monologue implies Lehman Brothers fell because it created a hunger for consumer credit, which isn’t quite right—and a show that has operated with gravity and grace spins out of control. Yet you could write your own epic poem about the way Beale pounces through doorways, landing as light as a cat, or how the vulpine Godley tucks himself into his coat when he’s a flirtatious 19th-century maiden. As performance and staging, the first two sections of the trilogy are a titanic achievement. And if history has taught us anything about Titanics, it’s that you can marvel at things that are beautiful and ambitious, even if they’ll sink in the end.
Park Avenue Armory (Off Broadway). By Stefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. With Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Running time: 3hrs 35mins. Two intermissions.