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Theatre in Review: The Lehman Trilogy (Park Avenue Armory)

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley. Photo: Stephanie Berger

Plays don't come more monumental than The Lehman Trilogy, and director Sam Mendes and his design team have provided a production to match it. This is theatre that breaks any number of rules, neatly getting away with every transgression. The sort of saga more suited to a novel than the stage, it nevertheless casts a spellbinding effect, causing three hours and twenty minutes to pass in seemingly no time at all; what could have been a stolid history lesson resonates eerily through the cavernous hall at Park Avenue Armory. The script, adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massini's Italian-language original, recounts the rise and fall of the famed financial firm, a narrative that provides a reliable, and often disturbing, mirror of the changes that have roiled and reshaped American society over the last hundred-and-fifty-years. It begins with the story of an immigrant dazzled by the rich promise of America and it ends in the greatest financial disaster of this century. It is the story of the Lehman family; it is the story of this country.

I have no idea how The Lehman TrilogyEs Devlin's set design places a cube, depicting a twenty-first-century office entirely enclosed in glass, on a turntable, surrounded by a reflective stage deck and enormous wraparound projection screen, which at first displays a stunning black-and-white view of Manhattan at night. Emerging from an upstage trap are three men, dressed in the long, black, flowing dress suits of the mid-nineteenth century. They enter the office and, employing a combination of third-person narration and dramatic exchanges (and taking on various roles), recount the story of the Lehman family and its legacy.

It's an extraordinarily lucid account of changing times, generational conflict, and the rise of an American empire. Henry, the founder of the American branch of this German-Jewish clan, arrives in New York in 1842, then moves to Montgomery, Alabama, where he opens a clothing store. He is soon joined by his brothers, Emanuel and Mayer. Dubbed, respectively, the "head" (Henry), the "arm" (Emanuel), and the "potato" (Mayer), they are a remarkably functional trio, with Mayer skillfully brokering conflicts between his older siblings. Realizing the limits of their business, they begin dealing in raw cotton, purchasing it from a growing number of plantations and selling it to textile manufacturers. Henry dies young, but the surviving brothers thrive until their fortunes are upended by the Civil War. Mayer audaciously petitions the governor for funds to set up a bank that, through prudent investments, will restore the South's devastated agricultural economy. Before long, Mayer joins Emanuel in New York, dealing in cotton and coffee. They are successful beyond their wildest dreams, yet a question haunts Emanuel: "But is it enough?"

As the twentieth century looms, Philip, Emanuel's son -- who is given to calculating his every move, even in his choice of a wife -- pushes Lehman Brothers in new directions: The financing of commodities is replaced by an emphasis on transportation, including railroads and the Panama Canal. (As you can see, a certain grandiosity has set in, too.) The company's coffers swell to the size of the GDP of a small nation, with Philip's unfailing sense for the main chance proving reliable until the day, in 1929, when stockbrokers start putting guns to their heads. Philip is eventually succeeded by Bobbie, who directs the company toward more intangible investments like entertainment ("A film about a monkey?" asks Philip, incredulously, circa 1932) and, later, to the war effort and the Atomic Age. Bobbie hangs on for decades, but he is the end of the family line and, as new words like "brand," "value," and "marketing" creep into the conversation, a new generation turns to ever-more-abstruse financial manipulations, driving profits higher and higher until the day, in October 2008, when a single phone call brings it all crashing down.

The heavily narrated style of the text could have been a deal-breaker, but it works brilliantly here, for several reasons -- not least because it is written with the acuity of a fine novel and the beauty of blank verse. Of Henry's first day in this country: "He took a deep breath, picked up his suitcase, and, walking quickly, despite not knowing where to go, like so many others, he stepped into the magical music box called America." A glad-handing railroad executive is described as "a perfectly tailored suit and an immense smile. He looked like a smile surrounded by a person." Philip, describing the firm's shift from tangible goods to finance, says, "We are merchants of money. Regular people use money only to buy things. But we, who have a bank, we use money to make more money. We buy it, we sell it, we lend it, we trade it. This is how the recipe works. Our flour is money."

The uninterrupted rise of the firm is halted for the first time by Black Tuesday, which is marked by reports of one suicide after another and a stampede of investors: "Wall Street is crowded and more are arriving and more, and more, and still more. 'Give me my money.' What money? Money is a ghost. Money is numbers. Money is air. You can't now, all of you, all together, want money." When the in-house revolution comes, it is conducted by public relations directors, including one who asserts, "Marketing is saying to everyone that if you buy, you win. If you buy, you beat me. If you buy, you're in first place. Marketing is to sell the concept that only he who buys will win the war. And since we're all at war, all the time, then only he who buys, survives." The production is defined throughout by a kind of double vision: It is simultaneously intimate and epic in scope, with a text that switches between prose and dialogue and actors who are at once omniscient commentators and deeply inside the characters. I'm not sure this approach would work without a superbly equipped cast, but this isn't an issue here: All three handle their assignments with tremendous tact and discipline, imbuing the script with a sense of wonder at the brothers' astonishing accomplishments and regret at the world they sent spinning out of control. Simon Russell Beale is touching as Henry, who dies too young, before the family fulfills its promise, and as Philip, whose abacus-like mind reaps an endless harvest of money until, suddenly, he finds himself out of touch with a changing world. (He also has a nice turn as a divorcé who marries into the clan, only to regret it.) Ben Miles is imposing as Emanuel, whose ambition pushes the Lehmans into commodity trading; as Herbert, who "wanted things to be fair. and in the world in which found himself, that meant he would always have a problem," ending up a liberal politician; and as Lewis Glucksman, the rough-edged outsider who ushers Lehman Brothers into the contemporary casino era of finance. Adam Godley excels as Mayer, the family peacemaker, and as Bobbie, whose frantic attempt at dancing as fast as he can causes him to shrivel up in full audience view.

The doubleness embedded in the production extends to the design: The sight of the men, dressed (very nicely, by Katrina Lindsay) out of a Dickens novel, in an antiseptic glass chamber of today is striking enough; it is backed by panoramic (and mostly black-and-white) images designed by Luke Halls, that often melt into one another in startling ways: The Statue of Liberty is seen stranded in the middle of an ocean; a cotton field suddenly sprouts a nightmarish Industrial Revolution factory; the New York skyline morphs, bit by bit, from a small collection of pre-Civil War warehouses to the glittering colossus of a thousand films and television shows. Three characters experience prophetic nightmares that result in disturbances, full of color and movement, and, in one of the most striking sequences, a long speech about modern financial practice is backed by images of stock market boards that move, faster and faster, until they are nothing but a blur; real numbers have been whipped into abstractions, perfect visual metaphor for profits seemingly plucked out of thin air.

In addition, Jon Clark's lighting packs an enormous number and variety of units into the ceiling of the office set, allowing him to create new looks and moods for each era. (Given the set's reflective qualities, you may occasionally get the glare of a light in your eye, but it won't last long.) Nick Powell and Dominic Bilkey's sound design features a battery of effects, including a ticking clock, the thunder of horses' hooves at the racetrack, and cannon fire, along with solid reinforcement for the actors. Powell also composed the contemplative original score, played live by the pianist Candida Caldicot.

It is no small food for thought that The Lehman Trilogy is being staged in Park Avenue Armory, that gorgeously restored Gilded Era palace so redolent of the Lehmans' heyday, or that this most American of stories has been written by a Continental playwright and staged by British producers and artists. (It is presented by London's National Theatre and Neal Street Productions, and, following the New York engagement, it transfers to the West End. Only the most generous of producers would spring for a three-person play that also requires a small army of supernumeraries for the final breathtaking coup de théâtre.) Attending the opening performance with a well-heeled New York audience, I had to wonder how many were personally acquainted with some of the firm's latter-day executives.

It is especially invigorating to see The Lehman Trilogy at this strange moment, when the ideas of American greatness and exceptionalism have been cast in such a skeptical light. There is a Faustian undertone to the Lehman story, an implicit warning to anyone who believes that the things of this world last forever. In a pinnacle moment, Bobbie says, "If buying is instinct like breathing, then people will use banks like they need air. They will need us to stay alive. Everyone will borrow. Everyone will spend. And we will become all-powerful. We will become immortal." Near the end, we are told of David Fuld, the last head of the company, "He was invincible. Until he wasn't. They were all invincible. Until they weren't." As a study of capitalism and its discontents, it is hard to beat. The script makes frequent reference to a character named Solomon Paprinskij, who allegedly spent fifty years walking a tightrope on Wall Street; like him, The Lehman Trilogy rarely, if ever, puts a foot wrong. -- David Barbour


(28 March 2019)

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