The Lehman Trilogy evokes William Faulkner’s famous observation about the unchanging nature of history. “The past is never dead,” wrote the Nobel laureate, whose work often fixated on how the sins of fathers undercut the lives of their children. “It’s not even past.”
That mindset permeates Ben Power’s English adaptation of Stefano Massini’s generational saga, which finally opened on Broadway after being halted in previews at the start of the pandemic. From the moment that Hayum Lehmann steps off a boat from Bavaria in New York harbor, travels to Alabama, and opens a mercantile business, he sets in motion the grand-scale tragedy that will ultimately cause the greatest financial catastrophe in American history. In Massini and Power’s rendering, it unfolds as a matter of fate.
The uncomfortable juxtaposition of past and present influences every aspect of Sam Mendes’ sleek, immensely watchable production. Hayum—who takes on the Anglicized moniker Henry, and who is played by the virtuosic Simon Russell Beale—and his brothers, Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emanuel (Adrian Lester), occupy Es Devlin’s glass-walled ultramodern office set, looking as if they might collapse under the weight of their stiff black frock coats. (Katrina Lindsay designed the simple, evocative costumes.)
They are presented both as men out of time and prime movers in the seemingly endless expansion of the country’s ruthless marketplace. They are simple merchants who climbed the ranks of society through temerity and callous capitalists who lit the match that set a nation’s financial security ablaze. Over the course of nearly three-and-a-half hours, the audience is tasked with charting how every decision from 1844 to 2008 contributed to a house of cards that could only hold its shape for so long.
There is value to this kind of storytelling—and especially considering the past 18 months, a renewed importance of works that approach unfettered capitalism with a critical eye. If the essential purpose of criticism is to ask why this specific show is being offered at this specific moment, The Lehman Trilogy checks many boxes in terms of timeliness and cultural relevance. Yet I remain unconvinced that it entirely achieves its goal of showing how attributes that can be admirable on their own terms—ambition, drive, protection of the family, and the quest for legacy—can also turn into something destructive.
Power’s script often takes the attitude that sunlight is the best disinfectant. It gets remarked only in passing that the general progression of the Lehman business in the South—from selling suits to selling seeds, and eventually acting as middlemen for moving cotton to the industrial North—is built on the back of the slave trade. The Civil War is presented as the drama’s first real tragedy, even more so than Henry Lehman’s early death from yellow fever. A viewer need not have their nose rubbed in a point to understand its importance, but the degree of moral ambiguity in addressing this foundational aspect of the Lehman narrative feels unpalatable by contemporary standards.
The same could be said of the events that lead the surviving brothers to New York, where they basically invent the concept of speculation—rather than turning goods into money, as one descendant puts it, they will now simply turn money into more money. The narrative takes an almost callous delight in their ingenuity. These are the smartest men to ever walk the earth, it seems to suggest, these poor immigrants who rose from nothing to the top ring of American society. It’s undeniably true that they rose, but more interest should be shown to why they fell.
If anything, the collapse of the company feels like the greatest afterthought. Deep in the third act, when you realize that three hours have passed and the action is still in the 1960s, there’s a trippy, shamelessly high-octane coup de théâtre that moves the action ahead by several decades through flash and spectacle. It elides much of the actual harm they caused in the era leading to their downfall, when they knowingly made investments that were bound to fail, treating real lives as nothing more than capital. It also tacitly absolves the Lehmans from responsibility for this failure. They were dead by then. Only the name survived.
Good theater shouldn’t moralize—in fact, there is an argument to be made that unpleasant identification with complicated characters and situations is the most effective way to tell a difficult story. But even in a work that strives for a largely fact-based distillation of a complicated legacy, it’s important to remember that you’re always experiencing a story through someone’s constructed lens. Whether they fully realize it or not, Mendes, Massini, and Power have largely stacked the deck in the Lehman Brothers’ favor.
There are other aspects of the production to take issue with. The script often relies on simplistic platitudes that could be lifted from any similar story of a powerful rise and fall. (“They were all invincible—until they weren’t.”) The overreliance on direct-address narration too frequently creates a situation in which three superb performers are left acting not to each other, but around each other. Women are shut out of the story almost entirely, and when they do appear—largely in vulgar characterizations by Beale or Godley—they are presented as wispy virgins or gruff gold diggers.
There are also moments to admire and to marvel at. Mendes weaves a superb narrative thread that underscores the death of tradition across generations, as the ritual of shiva grows more attenuated as each successive Lehman passes away. The projection design, by Luke Halls, is as successful as I’ve ever seen. Along with Jon Clark’s haunted lighting, it becomes a character in itself. But nothing is more valuable than the work of the three actors who embody more than 70 characters with practiced ease. Lester, a new addition for this engagement, fits right in, and Beale is a wizard at quicksilver shifts from comedy to drama. Godley does his best work as Bobbie Lehman, the final family member to preside over the Lehman empire, and the only successor treated with a truly critical eye.
Had the scrutiny that Bobbie Lehman receives been extended to the entire family tree, The Lehman Trilogy might truly be a play that meets the moment. By relying on hagiography and speculation instead, it sells itself short.