Saturday, April 6, 2019

204 (2018-2019): Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY (seen April 5, 2019)

"Money Makes the World Go Round, The World Go Round"

The theatre has been slower to tackle the high drama of high finance’s high rollers than the movies or TV. While you have to search diligently for titles like Serious Money (about the London Stock Exchange), Other People’s Money, Junk, and now, The Lehman Trilogy, it’s much easier to glut your greed for such material with films about bankers, financiers, investors, traders, brokers, corporate raiders, and hedge fund managers. 
A partial list of dramatic movies that followed in the wake of 1987’s Wall Street might include Other People’s Money (based on the play), The Associate, Boiler Room, Too Big to Fail, Margin Call, Arbitrage, Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short, not to mention Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. TV’s Billions and Black Monday series are in the same vein, along documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Inside Job, Capitalism: A Love Story, and so on.
Simon Russell Beale. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
As these examples reveal, stocks, bonds, loans, mortgages, derivatives, and all those other financial products that sound sexier to those able to dabble in them (or even to understand them) than to most of us, can provide stirring material when sufficiently humanized by the right creative artists. That, happily, is assuredly the case with Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy. This extraordinary piece comes to the Park Avenue Armory (worth visiting just to experience the place) following its acclaimed run, in Ben Power’s bitingly vivid English-language adaptation, at London’s National Theatre. (The Italian original premiered at Milan’s Piccolo Teatro in 2015.)
Adam Godley, Simon Russell Bealer, Ben Miles. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
Everything about this epic-scaled work—other than its exceptional three-member cast—is expansive. This extends from its three-hour and 20 minute history of the Lehman brothers’ worldwide financial empire—which was born in the 1840s as a fabric shop in Montgomery, Alabama, and died in the financial crash of 2008—to the giant stage and huge cyclorama used to depict its history, to the immense set of bleachers you watch from in the armory’s 55,000-square feet Drill Hall, to the program itself, so big I couldn’t fit it into my shoulder bag.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
Director Sam Mendes has crafted a magnificent work of theatre from Massini’s tale, which presents the arrival on these shores of the Lehman brothers, Bavarian-born German Jews, beginning with the oldest, Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), followed by Emanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley). Wearing the same 19th-century black suits and coats (costumes by Katrina Lindsay) throughout, they narrate the action in the third person—occasionally engaging in dialogue with one another—as they play not only the brothers and their descendants but other persons who figure in the firm’s history, including wailing infants, decrepit old men, and various female figures, each with a distinct voice and, when necessary, accent.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
It would take this review far too long to mention even just the major highlights in the Lehman story, which earns its “trilogy” title from being broken into three more or less hour-long acts, “Three Brothers,” “Fathers and Sons,” and “The Immortal.” We learn about the private lives of the Lehman men, including how they met their wives and how they practiced Judaism, which regressed from formal observance of shiva mourning to a mere three minutes for the death of Emanuel’s son, Philip. The big picture, however, focuses on their business practices. Interesting as this information is, there’s too much going on and at too fast a pace for us to become emotionally involved in anyone.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
We watch the shift from the brothers’ Deep South fabric business to buying and selling raw cotton; their opening an office at 119 Liberty Street, New York, in 1860; their Civil War experiences, leading to their becoming a bank in 1867; and their expansion into coffee, oil, tobacco, and railroads.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
We learn of the rise of Emanuel Lehman’s son, Philip, and Mayer’s son, Herbert, to company leadership; the successes of Philip’s son Robert (Bobbie), including investments in new businesses, like movies (King Kong is cited); the rise to high political office of Herbert, who had moral qualms about the business; their minimal loss from the stock market crash of 1929, with its consequent string of suicides; the profits made from World War II; the shift from family leadership to outsiders; and, as greed piled upon greed, and unbridled capitalism ran amuck, the company’s ultimate downfall as part of the subprime mortgage lending crisis. That, of course, played a giant role in a worldwide economic downturn when what was then Lehman Brothers Holdings, Inc., filed for bankruptcy.
Adam Godley, Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
It’s striking how clearly and accessibly most of this comes across. As matters begin to spin out of control, the way the turntable does at one dizzyingly theatrical point, the financial palaver can grow wearisome to those either less economically invested in the market or less emotionally invested in the company’s fortunes. You may, perhaps, find a momentary glaze stealing over your eyes.
Ben Miles, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
Further heightening the storytelling is Es Devlin’s remarkable set of a square, glass-walled, modernist financial office, divided into one large conference room, with table and chairs, and two smaller offices, all of it set on a turntable placed on a vast, black, and shiny stage against a semicircular cyclorama. Luke Halls has created wonderful video projections encompassing the entire cyc, many of them showing the evolution of lower New York’s skyline over the story’s century-and-a-half.
Simon Russell Beale. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
The chief accouterments of the turntable office, in addition to tables, desks, and chairs, are piles of boxes, presumably containing paper files ready for transport following the firms’ closing. Moved about by the actors themselves, they serve brilliantly for multiple purposes, such as steps to the large conference table, which often becomes a stage, to stepping stones, to a tower verging on collapse.
Ben Miles. Stephanie Berger.
As the versatile actors wend their way through the play, the set moves almost continuously as a pianist visible down left accompanies the action playing Nick Powell’s perfectly mood-setting music. Jon Clark’s lighting design makes many stunning adjustments, and potently effective sound effects co-designed by Powell and Dominic Bilkey provide additional emotional underpinning.
Adam Godley. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
At the unforgettable conclusion, after we’ve watched Beale, Godley, and Miles act their hearts out for over three hours, a cohort of 15 supernumeraries appears, steps up into the larger office, and huddles along one side of the table. The image offers a frontal view of what can be seen from the rear in a full-page program photo of the firm’s employees, shot from a window across the way, as they gathered to hear of the company’s closing.
Adam Godley. Photo: Stephanie Berger.
The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t bang you over the head with its moral lesson about how the money-hunger at Lehman Brothers participated in the soiling of the so-called American dream. Just watching the play is lesson enough.

Park Avenue Armory
643 Park Ave., NYC
Through April 20