When finance giant Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September 2008, President George W. Bush greeted the announcement with a nervous laugh. Another person at another time might have called it a “big damn deal”. This second reaction is usually on the right-hand side of history, and Lehman Trilogy, Opening Thursday at the Nederlander Theater in New York City, it shows why. It’s a gripping, welcome spin from Pandemic to Broadway, and it’s a big deal, as is the source material.
Written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, Lehman TrilogyIt tells the story of the family that founded the titular institution that became one of the most important players in the financial industry, doing successful business in London and the Park Avenue Armory in New York. At its peak Lehman Brothers looked too big to fail and yet it did, a failure that greatly contributed to the start of the Great Recession.
One thing that makes this epic game unique, starting in 1844 and ending in 2008, is the size of the cast: There are only three speaking parts. It stars Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, the Lehman brothers who founded the original institution and their sons and grandchildren, and dozens of other characters across race, gender and age barriers.
Even if the story of Lehman Brothers may not sound familiar, it is known from the beginning that things are not going well for the company. The real question is: How did all these smart people manage to screw this thing up? This is especially perplexing given how the family overcame adversity, first with the Civil War, then Black Thursday, and 1929, which completely destroyed the cotton trade. Exchange accident.
Lehman Trilogy It is a game about the rise and fall of a business and a family whose fortunes are inextricably linked at the same time. From a small shop in Montgomery, Alabama, the company grew into a major cotton dealer and eventually a bank. Every step of the way, we see how the three siblings contributed to the success and growth of the business and how it was passed on to their sons and grandchildren.
The lives of family members are shaped by their religion. These are observant Jews who pray regularly, sit shiva gradually, albeit for shorter periods, and turn off their business on the Sabbath, at least initially. Old rituals are shelved as they become more assimilated into business and American habits.
Directed by Sam Mendes, the game excels at every level. It’s no surprise that actors are able to maintain the focus of the audience, with all the rapid character changes required. This is especially true given that much of the play on display, much of it financial and business jargon, is told directly to the audience. But the game never becomes a lesson; remains theatrical on a large scale, and Mendes has always kept drama front and center.
While the cast is probably more familiar to British audiences, the range of actors on display here should change that. Simon Russell Beale convincingly plays everyone from a business giant to a flirtatious young woman – but secondly, I would advise him not to play hard to get.
In addition to his role as the founding brother, Adam Godley plays a sneaky temptress, Southern businessman and Robert Lehman, among other things. It’s his turn as Bobby, a smart businessman who lives life to the fullest and then some.
Making his Broadway debut, Adrian Lester easily transitions from being an intimidating, even ruthless businessman, a respected politician to a lactating boy.
To call this one power demonstration It would be an understatement for the cast: There’s a lot of spin and power in play in this game.
And not to forget is Es Devlin’s minimalist set: a simple, modern room filled with file boxes that serve as the setting for everything from a boat crossing the Atlantic to Lehman corporate offices. Given the complex nature of the story, going simple was definitely the right choice. The set also serves as the foreground for Luke Halls’ videos that set space and tone, and turn into thrilling rides in more action-packed moments.
Lehman Brothers’ 164-year journey was a thrill ride in itself, and this story Lehman TrilogyWelcome back to Broadway.
A sidebar of the game: The theater seems to have made it easy on vaccines and masks. Theater audiences only need proof of vaccination and picture ID ready. Masks were available for anyone who needed it, and getting into the theater was no more difficult than it was before the pandemic. I wish they had masks with the logo for the game on them.
Lehman Trilogy Running through January 2022 at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, New York. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn at all times in the theatre. For tickets and more information, go to TheLehmanTrilogy.com.