‘The Lehman Trilogy’ Theater Review: Sam Mendes Directs a Family’s Financial Undoing

Stefano Massini’s saga of an American empire gone belly up makes its American debut

Last Updated: March 28, 2019 @ 2:46 PM

When a play holds your attention for three hours or more, the writer, with help from a gifted director, must be doing something right. While much of the theatergoing public thinks it’s a plus to escape a play in fewer than 90 minutes, a growing number of writers are taking the time to let their stories unfold, their characters develop. It’s almost a trend among new plays on the boards in New York City. In addition to the long-running “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway, there’s currently Suzan-Lori Parks’s “White Noise” at the Public, Jeremy O. Harris’s “Daddy” at the Pershing Square, and Jez Butterworth’s “The Ferryman” on Broadway. And now there’s also Stefano Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy,” which opened Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory for a limited run.

The three-act “Lehman Trilogy” clocks in at three hours and 20 minutes, and was originally conceived as a radio play that lasted five hours on Italy’s Rai Radio 3. It first aired in 2012, but soon took form as a play that traveled throughout Europe before it landed last year at London’s National Theatre, where Sam Mendes directed the English translation by Ben Power. It’s that production that plays the Armory until April 20 before returning to London to open on the West End later this spring.

“The Lehman Trilogy” at the Armory remains very much a radio play, albeit a shorter one than the original. It’s an American saga of three real-life Jewish immigrants from Bavaria who, pre-Civil War, arrive in Alabama to open a little shop that grows to become the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States before going spectacularly bankrupt in 2008.

The audacity of “The Lehman Trilogy” is that Mendes’ direction keeps it radio-play simple. The three Lehman brothers are played by Simon Russell Beale (Henry), Adam Godley (Mayer) and Ben Miles (Emanuel) — who also play the brothers’ wives, children and a few dozen other characters that all wear the same black long coats (the serviceable costumes are by Katrina Lindsay) that the men wore upon first stepping foot in America.

The three actors don’t so much perform the story as they tell it to us, complete with “he said” and “she said.” (Those who sat through “Gatz,” the eight-hour reading of “The Great Gatsby,” will recognize the experience.) But it’s best not to close your eyes simply to listen. The vast Armory space is now a proscenium stage, complete with a curtain that rises to reveal Es Devlin’s revolving transparent glass box set. It features one large modern board room, an office lounge, and another smaller room filled with packing boxes that often make their way to the other two rooms to function as chairs, stairs, counter tops, a tower and a kind of crypt (the brothers have nightmares).

As the glass box turns, this way and then that way, the three actors walk from room to room. Occasionally the box stops, and that’s generally when a full scene is either enacted or told to us, but not always. The stock market crash of 1929 sees Robert Lehman (Godley), the son of Philip Lehman (Beale), as he attempts to keep the company afloat despite nagging from his wife (also played by Beale) and Philip, while a dozen or so stockbrokers (played by Miles) commit suicide.

I grew up thinking that most of these financial types jumped out the office window, but “The Lehman Trilogy” tells us that many preferred blowing their heads off with a pistol.

It’s a tour de force of direction and writing and Devlin’s set rarely rests under Jon Clark’s always dramatic lighting. Better yet, the designer’s big glass box is framed by a IMAX-like cyclorama that keeps updating us on the physical rise of Manhattan’s ever-changing skyline — until we’re literally swamped in nothing but office buildings (stunning videos by Luke Halls). Also thrilling is the depiction of a plantation fire much earlier in the story that the first Lehman brothers exploit to grow their store from a pop-and-pop operation to a major force in the cotton business.

We learn a lot about cotton in “The Lehman Trilogy.” We learn almost nothing about the coffee business, even though it made the boys far more money — or so we are told. Massini performs that kind of sleight-of-hand throughout the evening. For instance, while we’re being dazzled by Mendes’ direction of the 1929 stock market crash, we never learn how Robert Lehman actually saved the company — except that he worked hard.

Also, sometime right before that 20th-cenury financial meltdown, much character development goes on during the play’s second intermission. Philip Lehman morphs into the doddering old dad after being the resident genius and Robert Lehman switches from artsy dilettante son to the new resident genius.

From watching “The Lehman Trilogy,” one might get the idea that the Lehmans were intimately involved with the popularization of cigarette smoking or the creation of the atomic bomb or the making of the movie “King Kong.” These cultural signposts sparkle, catch our attention and then are dropped. That’s the thing about investment. Or as Massini repeatedly tells us: When money is only words it doesn’t really exist. And neither is it very dramatic. Perhaps that’s why “The Lehman Trilogy” spends so much time on the courtships of the Lehman men to such unremarkable women.

Since Act 3 begins with the stock market crash and takes up about half an hour, I began to wonder how Massini was going to explain the 2008 bankruptcy of the Lehman Bros. It’s why I wanted to see “The Lehman Trilogy.”

He doesn’t explain it.

Robert Lehman was the last of the clan involved with the company, and before dying in 1969, he added a trading division run by an evil Hungarian named Lew Glucksman (Miles), who made the company more money than any of the Lehmans ever thought possible. Glucksman eventually bought out an evil Greek named Pete Peterson (Beale), who had been president, and faster than anyone can say “We’re a car with no brakes!” the show is over.

Almost a decade ago, a play from London titled “Enron” opened and quickly closed on Broadway. It bored, but I learned everything I wanted to know about the Enron disaster. I learned next to nothing from “The Lehman Trilogy” about why Lehman Bros. went belly up. But I wasn’t bored.

Nor was I riveted. Occasionally, my mind wandered to wonder how three immigrant Jews could encounter so little discrimination in Montgomery, Alabama, in the middle of the 19th century. Or, why was I having to watch all those tedious Lehman wives?

This is probably also a minority report. New York critics can’t heap enough praise on actors from the other side of the Atlantic. While Beale and Godley are fine playing the adult male Lehmans, their impersonations of women, children and rednecks are sometimes cringe-worthy. Miles brings to mind Christoph Waltz, especially when he’s playing the German-accented Emanuel Lehman. But Miles lacks Waltz’s humor. Whether telling us about the Civil War or the coffee exchange or a tightrope walker on Wall Street, Miles delivers everything with the same leaden portentousness.