In a feat of design, directing, and acting towards the end of The Lehman Trilogy, Es Devlin’s rotating glass box spins clockwise while the projections on the curved cyclorama behind it spin counter-clockwise. As the three actors do the Twist, time moves progressively forward, and the projections and the dancing speed up until it’s all a dizzying blur. It’s a powerful theatrical image that encapsulates both the dramatic push into the future and the mystifying way that events get mashed up together as days turn into decades. It demonstrates how the details are sometimes hard to remember and how every little stop along the way is sometimes less important than where you’ve ended up. It literally boggles the mind, as described by several people around me who remarked that they were having trouble walking afterwards. It’s the kind of coup-de-theatre that only Park Avenue Armory, in all its vastness, can present. It’s also a microcosm of what’s wrong with The Lehman Trilogy.
Despite the breathtaking design elements, Sam Mendes’ clever direction, and shape-shifting, but not gimmicky performances from Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, and Ben Miles, the fundamental problem of the play itself is that it neglects the darker side of Lehman Brothers Holdings, one of the financial institutions responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008. Instead, Stefano Massini’s play, adapted here by Ben Power, is an immigrant story: three brothers from Bavaria started a small cotton business in Montgomery, Alabama and, many years and generational shifts later, grew it into one of the largest investment banks in the United States.
Most of the run time is devoted to the founding, with Beale, Godley, and Miles, playing Henry, Mayer, and Emanuel Lehman respectively. The Lehman Trilogy is performed in a kind of declarative narration, with the three brothers charting the history of the company and dipping in and out of the narrative as themselves and others. The novelistic narration gets tiresome after a while. It’s poetic and descriptive, but rarely active. In the second and third acts, as the founding brothers die, they become their children, their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s successors from outside the family. But the play is also simultaneously narrated by the three brothers and they never disappear from the stage; their light German accents are a constant reminder that this company – no matter what it has become – was not originally American.
The play ignores the greed that drove Lehman Brothers to contribute to the 2008 financial crisis, though. It does not acknowledge Lehman Brothers’ role in wrecking not just our national economy, but the economies of other nations as well. It does not show the people driven from their homes or fired from their jobs. Well, that’s not entirely true. The three actors are joined onstage by fifteen employees of Lehman Brothers in the play’s final seconds. As the company files for bankruptcy and is dissolved, these fifteen silent supernumeraries take the stage holding boxes as if they are packing up their desks and receiving the bad news. The Lehman Trilogy does not ask us to feel sorry for the millions of people affected by the rapacious greed of these financial institutions, it asks us to be empathetic to the Lehman employees.
The play’s title capitalizes on our awareness of what Lehman Brothers Holdings was, not who the actual Lehman brothers were. The immigrant story is filled with fresh, informative storytelling. It’s also timely in our xenophobic present. But the play loses this thread once the founding brothers pass away and their children take over. It does not connect the ways in which the heart, or I should say the center (because the heart has nothing to do with it), of the business got lost to the downward spiral that caused its dissolution in 2008. It does not address how the greed of the Lehmans’ successors caused the destruction of the three immigrant brothers’ hard work, 158 years later. Time jumps forward, over an enormous chasm, that is actually the reason the audience is interested in the story in the first place.
It is a conservative play, telling only the side of the banks. The night I attended coincided with a special event for subscribers of the Wall Street Journal, which made complete sense when the three and half hours had spun their course. The play could, and should, be an hour longer, though. In that hour, it should detail what happens in the play’s lacuna where Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, and their ilk made reckless decisions that had global consequences. The fifteen Lehman Brothers employees who lose their jobs in the tag at the end of the play should then represent everyone outside of these financial institutions – people who may only now be recovering. The bankers are fine and they will always be fine. Tell the story of everyone else.