Ominously the first scene is the Lehman Brothers being gutted by the U.S. Treasury and The Fed in 2008. In the very next scene, Henry Lehman arrives at Ellis Island from Rimpar, Germany and sets his new course in America. That is the beginning of the exquisite play, The Lehman Trilogy at the Nederlander Theatre opened October 14th. Without Ben Miles, the original Emanuel Lehman when the show played at the Armory, the show thrives still. In three parts, we are taken for a journey in the Lehman’s family history. Henry Lehman being the first to come to America, then Emmanuel and later Mayer. Not without argument, the three plod along selling fabrics and suits in Alabama. Steadfast to their German past and their Jewish roots, the three are able to make it through insightfulness and hard work.
In a show that will undoubtedly yield many Tony Awards, The Lehman Trilogy excels in every way; the scenic design by Es Devlin is a glass cube and inside the cube is where the entire action takes place. Sam Mendes makes the three plus hours move with the ease of watching somebody’s life unfold before your eyes in easy steps for all to enjoy. Mendes is deft in making the three main characters play multiple roles with such ease and verve. Spectacular are Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale. Even Adrian Lester is believable playing a white Emanuel Lehman.
As the story unfolds we see the inner workings of a family business… the first part is just the three brothers starting out, as they grow, they are faced with more challenges, more decisions. The steady growth make the trio a growing force in the South only to be faced with the Civil War. Already faced with the plantations that burned, nothing stops the Lehman’s from not only surviving, but thriving in business. And at the end of Act One, the Lehman’s have opened an office at 119 Liberty Street without “The Head”, Henry Lehman as Yellow Fever has taken him.
In Act Two, we now have the sons coming into the business. The family has moved away from textiles, once growing and selling cotton, to lending as a bank. Under the tutelage of Phillip, Emanuel’s son (Simon Russel Beale), Lehman Brothers will fund the railroads, oil companies and a plethora of new and upcoming industries. The bank was ripe to grow beyond the young, calculating bankers dreams. To Phillip, it’s strategy and not luck. At seventy years old, however, Phillip is losing his edge and now needs to rely on his son, Bobby to carry on the tradition. Both Hotchkiss and Yale educated, Bobby does not have the passion that his dad, nor grand dad did for finance; he does love the things that the money brings, however. As an avid art collector and equestrian, Bobby needs to succeed to carry on his lifestyle.
As time goes on, Stefano Massini does an incredible job in putting forth the brothers and how they change over time… Myer hates living in New York City, he is a simple man as is his wife. People mock him, his shoes, his style as he says little but always observant. Like Emanuel he will succumb to Phillip’s wishes even if it means almost going out of business in the 1929 stock market crash. Lehman would go on to survive the crash with the help of the government, only to fail when in 2008 the government does not come to its aid and lets the bank fail.
In Act Three, (the plays most technological frenzied Act) we have the crash itself. Brilliantly done we see how the effects hit places like Nebraska and how a child from there would come to New York and be recognized as one of the greatest trader Wall Street has ever known. Lewis Glucksman, a brash trader would talk Bobby Lehman into opening a trading desk on Water St, keeping the “White Shoe” Investment banking on Williams Street and separate. As things move more and more quickly, both Luke Halls video design and Nick Powell and Dominic Bilkey’s sound design separate this show from very good to great. The audience at this point in the play are made to feel first hand the tension, the pressure and the fast paced action that Wall Street has become. Even though Bobby is aging, the money, the glory is too difficult to let go of.
As time goes on, Massini shows us how times have changed, once Conservative Jews are now Reformed Jews; religion is just not as important as it was with the original three brothers. Death does not warrant the full grievance period any longer. Three minutes is all Phillip received when he passed and Bobby none. Gone are the Lehman’s. Pete Peterson has taken over the Investment Banking side and Lewis Glucksman wants him out. In succeeding to do so in 1983, Lehman Brothers succeed for ten more months before being sold. It is here that the play was muddied and unclear to the audience; this part of the play would not resonate to anyone who does not know the history of the bank.
As we are brought through time, Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are right on for the various time periods. Mark Lindsay makes us feel as we are in the play, or at least in its era.
Massini brings us a family that lives through all its trials and tribulations, showing that having loads of money does not take away the angst that comes with success. What was once a passion of its founders, dissipates as generations move up the ladder.
The speed, the writing, the acting and everything that goes into this show is first rate and should not be missed. Shows this good do not come along very often, but when they do it is very satisfying.
The Lehman Trilogy: Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street until January 2, 2022