An epic history of the rise and demise of one family’s American Dream and financial empire in ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ on Broadway

If you’re concerned about the potential discomfort or waning attention precipitated by sitting through a three-part production with a running time of more than three hours and two intermissions, don’t be. The Lehman Trilogy, now playing a limited engagement at the Nederlander Theatre, is a brilliant work of epic proportions that kept me enthralled with its masterful storytelling, engaging direction, and spellbinding performances for its entirety, without once checking my watch. Those three+ hours are thoroughly engrossing and very well spent.

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, and Adrian Lester. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Presented by The National Theatre and Neal Street Productions, the five-time Olivier Award-nominated play, written by Italian dramatist Stefano Massini and adapted by British playwright Ben Power, already reached heights of success with its sold-out runs in London and at NYC’s Park Avenue Armory. The current Broadway premiere, directed by Oscar and Tony Award winner Sam Mendes, is equally deserving of all the acclaim and interest accrued by the show’s previous productions. Featuring the return of original company members Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley, the demanding work, structured in the format of a direct-address third-person narration spanning nearly two centuries in the history of the real-life Lehman family and business empire, is handled flawlessly by the commanding performers, joined by co-star Adrian Lester in a stellar Broadway debut.

The play and its trio of actors encompass three generations, from the sequential immigration of the Jewish Lehman brothers Henry (Beale), Mayer (Godley), and Emanuel (Lester) to Alabama from Bavaria in the mid-19th century, through the establishment and growth of their ever-changing family business and move to New York City, to the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, which climaxed with the bankruptcy and collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment services firm (then the fourth largest in the country).

As the story shifts from the founders to their sons and then grandsons, the tone of the language appropriately switches from poetic musings and traditional religious incantations to post-modern technical financial-speak that reflects the changing times and priorities, in a growing indictment of the lure of money and the rapacious capitalist system. There are also moments of laughter, as the three actors not only turn in tour-de-force portrayals of all the Lehman men, but also the women, children, and associates in their lives, readily distinguishing the characters through their voices and demeanors, and inspiring us to use our imaginations, without changing a costume or missing a beat. Acting doesn’t get any better than this.

Along with the dramatized recounting of their lives, achievements, and the ultimate failure of the Lehmans’ American Dream (triggering their own recurrent nightmares), the play revisits pivotal moments in US history, including the Civil War, Reconstruction, the yellow fever epidemic, the 1929 stock market crash, and the GFC. It also alludes to such momentous moral issues as the brothers’ acceptance and exploitation of slavery in the South for familial success in the cotton industry (while concurrently intoning their laments of the ancient enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt) and the promulgation of capitalist excess to the public for their own personal gain (which ultimately cost the firm everything).

Adrian Lester, Simon Russell Beale, and Adam Godley. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

As with the narration, the show’s design engages the audience’s imagination, with the actors wearing the same 19th-century-style costumes throughout (by two-time Tony Award winner Katrina Lindsay), despite the change of characters and periods, and the rotating set (by two-time Tony Award nominee Es Devlin) consists of a current-day board room and offices in a glass-and-steel skyscraper, enhanced by background videos (by Luke Halls) that capture the different eras, locales, and events. Together they connect us to the trajectory of where the Lehmans started and how they ended (with the crisis of 2008, and an additional ensemble of actors, used as a framing device to open and close the trilogy). Expert lighting (by Jon Clark), sound (by Tony Award-nominated composer Nick Powell), movement (by Polly Bennett), and music direction (by pianist Candida Caldicot) enhance the figures, moods, and times recounted.

The Lehman Trilogy is theater at its most compelling, provocative, and accomplished. Don’t miss it.

Running Time: Approximately three hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions.

The Lehman Trilogy plays through Sunday, January 2, 2022, at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, NYC. For tickets, go online. Proof of vaccination is required for entry and masks must be worn inside the theater at all times.


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