I like British plays about topical goings-on that are presented with a certain amount of flair and eccentricity, such as Ink, a recent favorite. A musical-ish Rupert Murdoch? I’m there for that! The Lehman Trilogy, at the Nederlander, promised a similar experience, under the reins of the multi-awarded Sam Mendes no less. I would learn things, about the storied Wall Street firm that lasted from 1847, as the Civil War brewed in the background, until the economic shambles of 2008 brought it crashing down. But I would also be entertained, as three crack actors, veterans of the London stage and familiar from TV shows, played all the parts, passing around hats and cloaks like it was the great stage comedy of The 39 Steps all over again. Bring. It.
And I will say that, for much of its running time, it worked. I’m now an authority on early capitalism in the mid-19th century (my bond trader dad, a bank president before he retired, would finally be proud) and I got to see the amazing Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Adrian Lester act the coquette and do other funny-tragic-piercing things as Lehmans and associates through the ages. (How could this, only now, be the Broadway debut of Lester, who’s been on our radar since the 1998 film of Primary Colors?) Yet I still found it wanting. It’s difficult to sustain such a piece through a 3.5-hour running time and two intermissions–and harder still when it has no particular thesis driving it. The Lehman Trilogy is, as has been said about history itself, just one damn thing after another.
Backstory: this production started life in 2015, as a three-act play by the Italian playwright and novelist Stefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power and directed by Mendes it premiered in London five years later and was seen in New York in 2019, with a Broadway mounting slated for 2020…and one day maybe I’ll write about a show that wasn’t impacted by covid. In one key way the delay was for the good. The strongest throughline in the show, in the first two of its three acts, is its assimilation thread, which is richly observed. But the immigrant success story represented by Henry Lehman, a German Jew who swam rather than sank when he made his way from New York to Alabama and back again, is clouded by slavery. Power, powerfully assisted by Lester (a newcomer to the creative team), has filled in that blank in the original script, advantageously.
The play is performed in hindsight, beginning with the the firm’s ignominious descent into subprime mortgages and “too big to fail” bankruptcy before turning back the clock to Heyum/”Henry’s” arrival. (Backed by projections that convey each period, Es Devlin’s excellent glass box office set revolves as if on a wheel of time, with live piano accompaniment.) “Play” is a somewhat relative term–written in free verse, and often in the second person, the stories of the Lehmans are often just told to us. This can be exhausting, and by the third act, when the proud and headstrong Lehmans and their cotton bales are largely left behind in the shaky new world of computerized commerce, it is. Absent a stronger critique of late capitalism the show, a genteel entertainment, seems to sentimentalize the robber barons of yesteryear.
But the three performers, as the brothers and in other guises, are worth their weight in cotton, gold, bitcoin, whatever. From inquisitive children to ruminative old age, from first success to the 1929 stock market crash and into our recent, blighted past, they are endlessly transformative, and even as The Lehman Trilogy wavers dramatically they succeed in moving us.