The Lehman Trilogy – Three Brothers Built a Universe

This is the story of a dynasty. It’s the story of 150 years of formative American Capitalism, innovation powered by hubris as much as insight; the erosion of ritual. Through the Lehman Brothers, their relationships and businesses, playwright Stefano Massini and Adapter Ben Power show us a vast panorama of psychological and social change without losing intimacy. ‘A story of people, not numbers.

Part One: Three Brothers, Part Two: Fathers and Sons, Part Three: The Immortal

Simon Russell Beale (Henry Lehman)

Hayum had been dreaming of America…Henry Lehman – the name change made things easier (Simon Russell Beale) – stepped off the ship in New York after 1 ½ months at sea wearing his best shoes. Baruch Hashem (Thank God.) It was 1844. Lehman was the son of a Jewish cattle rancher in southern Germany. He boarded a teetotaler and disembarked “a champion drinker,” learned to gamble, and thought he understood the world.

Henry sets up a small dry goods shop in Montgomery, Alabama, called H. Lehman. Followed to America by middle brother Emanuel (Ben Miles), he changes the sign to H. Lehman. & Bro., then on the arrival of 20 year-old Mayer (Adam Godley), to Lehman Brothers. At the start, they make $2.75 a day. It would be three years before debts were paid. Every morning the siblings pray.

All three virtuoso actors play dozens of roles, morphing fluently through body language, accents, and speech patterns to differences in age, origin and sex. Remarkably, without costume change, we always know who they are. (Katrin Lindsay’s black suits are just right, each version to its wearer.) More importantly, we believe who they are.

 Ben Miles (Emanuel Lehman)

Despite disagreement – these are three distinctly different men – dry goods gives way to farm equipment, which is replaced by raw cotton. When fields burn and two despair, Henry says, “Now everything needs to be rebought. We’ll issue credit, speculate on the future…” Emanuel begins to sell to the north. Henry dies. The brothers sit traditional Shiva closing the shop for the first time in ten years.

While Emanuel is zeroing in on The New York Cotton Market, Mayer pays suit to future wife Babette. Emanuel pursues his own Circe and opens an office on Liberty Street. Civil War leaves the south demolished. The company becomes Lehman Brothers Bank. Emanuel sells cotton to Europe, then coffee. Mayer and his family have to be convinced to relocate to Manhattan.

Es Devlin’s inspired Set is a glass rectangle with spare, modern office furniture and lots and lots of cardboard file boxes serving as goods, podiums, ladders, stairs…Actors walk from one loosely divided area to the next, as the rectangle revolves on a polished floor. Lighting Design by John Clark becomes an envelope for events. Behind, a curved cyclorama serves as projection screen for Luke Halls’ evocative, not quite realistic, Video Design. Proportion and emotion are plumbed. Later in the piece, when stock numbers hurtle down, with the office spinning, it’s possible to get vertigo.

Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley

Subtle, solo piano is almost constant, but so symbiotic, one rarely distinguishes music from that to which it wholly contributes. Kudos to Pianist Candida Caldicot and Composer/Sound Designer Nick Powell.

Emanuel endures the same prescient, vivid nightmare again and again, as Mayer will suffer his own, and Philip his when they’re in charge. (These are wonderful conceits.) His arrogant, motormouth son, Philip, is the next great hope. The tennis metaphor of  “keeping a ball at play,” and observing shell games in the street, wed him to strategy rather than instinct. He auditions potential wives.

Mayer’s son Herbert, who would become governor then senator of New York, takes issue with tradition. Commenting on the Bible as a boy, he says, “Instead of just wasting time with the plagues, he should’ve just killed the Pharoah.” Remember when Indiana Jones is faced with an Arab’s ready whip, pulls out a pistol, and shoots him?

There’s a Board of Directors at Lehman now. When Emanuel dies, Shiva lasts a mere three days. It’s the first time the office has been closed in 40 years. Philip’s son Bobbie prefers art and race horses. His father explains that the winning horse has more value. There are endless unacknowledged eureka moments.  The company changes its name to Lehman Brothers Finance.

Adam Godley (Mayer Lehman)

Bobbie Lehman will be the last family member to run the firm. He doesn’t believe in wagering on industry. What’s bought and sold is increasingly intangible. October 24, 1929, the Crash. Description is terrific, delivery staccato, visuals unnerving. The heir apparent goes to see his father. “The state will blame the crisis on the banks,” Philip says. “We shouldn’t help others. If we survive the first month, they won’t let us fail…but business will want to control us.”

From here, the play compresses and speeds up. (I would have sat 15 more minutes past the three hours to have Lehman Brothers’ collapse more fully explained.) A Greek from Nebraska and a Hungarian immigrant in New York end up running the firm, with a new trading division taking the lead. When Philip dies, the organization observes three minutes of silence.

Movies, television, stores, and computers emit siren calls. A new PR man declares “You have to convince people they’re not buying, you’re doing a deal and they’re winning.” Bobbie’s demise is a brilliantly manifest signal of the era. We watch the company break up and finally implode.

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles

These are Cliff Notes. Richness and perception are omnipresent. Drama rides tandem with humor. Repetition of Yiddish phrases, the importance of dreams, heritage and its signage work like signatures of a Hellenic Epic. Immigration matters. Time marches on, lessons unlearned.

Director Sam Mendes (whose Ferryman lights up Broadway) has reached a pinnacle with The Lehman Trilogy. It’s utterly masterful.

Photos by Stephanie Berger
Opening: Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley

Park Avenue Armory presents
The English language premiere of The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Featuring Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles
Directed by Sam Mendes
March 29, 2019
Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Avenue

About Alix Cohen (1793 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.