The Lehman Trilogy
Beale, Miles, and Godley: Model capitalists
The Park Avenue Armory, New York City, (212) 933-5812
Get ready for a “genuinely epic” American story, said Ben Brantley in The New York Times. The U.S. debut of Stefano Massini’s “magnificent” play about Lehman Brothers recounts the rise and fall of a Wall Street juggernaut founded in the mid 19th century by three immigrant brothers from Bavaria, and it captures so much aspirational energy and eventful history that “you’re left reeling by the scope and vitality of it all.” Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley play every role and deliver “three of the most virtuosic performances you’re ever likely to see.” They’re aided by a dazzling glass-box set, by the inventive stagecraft of director Sam Mendes, and by Massini’s dialogue, which “has the resonance of a work by Homer or Virgil.” As it should: Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, destroying everything built by generations of dreamers and rocking economies worldwide.
You’re unlikely to see such a deep appreciation of American capitalism on any other New York stage, said Kyle Smith in the National Review. “I kept waiting for the playwright to pull the rug out and inform us in hectoring tones that lending money or earning profits is evil.” Instead, we see Henry Lehman, a German Jew, arrive in New York City in 1844, set up a small textile shop in Alabama with his brothers, then turn the business into much more: a cotton-trading outfit, a lender, a commodities brokerage, and a purveyor of increasingly abstract financial services—“using money to make more money,” in one character’s words. Those transformations mirror the country’s development into an incomprehensibly complex economic superpower, and this production works in “a phenomenal amount of information” about how the family firm seized on new opportunities, in generation after generation. Though ticket prices are steep, “don’t forgo the opportunity to experience this theatrical tour de force.”
This is storytelling that, for all its mastery, “doesn’t seem to be doing much asking,” said Sara Holdren in New York magazine. From the moment Massini glosses over the fact that the Lehmans made their early fortune by brokering slave-picked cotton, the family’s dreamers are treated as heroes that don’t have to answer for the effects of their ambition. But that’s what this play gets so right, said David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s been no shortage of plays, movies, and books dealing with the financial crisis, but The Lehman Trilogy stands apart because it has less interest in the mechanisms of the crash—or even such standard subtext as the deification of wealth and the cult of greed—than in the ways the psychological groundwork for it all is woven into the very fabric of the American dream.” ■