A spellbinding saga of men, money, and America, in ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ at STC

Shakespeare Theatre Company stages an epic depiction of avarice in a must-see spectacular production.

DC has seen some great theater about the perils of overweening wealth — Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, about the financial collapse the firm precipitated; Akad Akhtar’s play Junk, a primer on the speciousness of debt financing — but The Lehman Trilogy now playing in the Harman may be the most epic depiction of avarice yet. Packed into its three spellbinding hours is so much financial edutainment — and such engrossing drama about men, money, and America — that the time flies by and the mind wants more.

Wanting more is the gist of the acquisitive zeal that propels this play. It tells the true story of three Jewish brothers from Bavaria — Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman — who came to America in the mid-1800s with nothing, made money buying and selling stuff, got rich, kept getting richer, and established the eponymous global financial firm that survived them but that did not itself survive.

Scene from Part One: Edward Gero (Henry Lehman), René Thornton Jr. (Emanuel Lehman), and Mark Nelson (Mayer Lehman) in ‘The Lehman Trilogy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The three-part play — based on a 700-page novel by Stefano Massini written in astonishingly eloquent blank verse, smartly adapted for the stage by Ben Power — begins with its ending: the multibillion-dollar bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers that in 2008 triggered history’s most disastrous financial crisis. In the first scene, we hear radio reports of the catastrophe as a lone custodian copes with a massive mound of shredded paper, which in scenic designer Marsha Ginsberg’s apt conception will remain on stage for the duration like the residual detritus of a capitalist fiasco.

One by one we meet the immigrant brothers as they arrive in the U.S., each portrayed by an actor of protean power and presence — Edward Gero as the eldest, Henry; René Thornton Jr. as Emanuel; Mark Nelson as Mayer, the youngest — all dressed in natty period attire (costumes by Anita Yavich). Henry addresses us directly (the script’s default performance mode) and gives thanks to God a lot. Director Arin Arbus, who brings to this talkative text a fount of fun staging ideas, has Emanuel enter out of the pile of shredded paper, and Mayer clamber out of a shredded-paper-filled trash bin, lending Becketian flair to an overall Brechtian affair. Adding to the theatricality throughout, Gero, Thornton Jr., and Nelson appear in some 50 supporting roles including as the brothers’ wives and sons, slyly differentiating their characterizations with but slight shifts in voice and stance. No daughters are to be seen or much heard of, and the brothers’ wives are impersonated risibly, leaving no doubt that this world of megabucks is a men’s domain where money makes the man.

A haunting undertone can often be heard beneath scenes, almost below consciousness, like a mournful cello, perhaps a piano playing softly — compositions by Michael Costagliola that seem to say there is more going on here than meets the eye.

Henry sets up shop in Alabama selling fabrics and suits and is shortly joined by Emanuel.  Impressive projections designed by Hannah Wasileski sweep us into the story and keep us up to date on its chronology with huge numerals marking the year. By the time Mayer arrives, the brothers have begun buying cotton from Southern plantation owners and selling it at a profit to fabric makers in the North. Lessons in the psychology and strategy of economic advantage unspool like freshly spun threads. It’s like seeing how capitalism came into being and how it operates at its source. No mention is made of the enslaved people’s labor from which the brothers’ wealth is stolen; the tally and sale price of wagonloads of cotton is all that matters. We watch by turns enthralled and appalled as the brothers devise for themselves the role of middlemen, brokers between sellers and buyers who take a markup cut (“to stay rich, to get richer”), a template that will take them to Wall Street (“that street of miracles, where every day, men walk on air”), to riches beyond dreams, and value without values.

Scene from Part Two: Mark Nelson (Mayer Lehman), Edward Gero (Henry Lehman), and René Thornton Jr. (Emanuel Lehman) in ‘The Lehman Trilogy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

History intercedes in the Lehmans’ lives dramatically with the Civil War (signaled by jolting light effects by Yi Zhao and explosive sound design by Costagliola). There are fewer plantations to supply cotton. Their middlemen’s profits are imperiled. Watching them invent a workaround that ratchets up their earnings from exploitation is like getting a pro-how-to in the ingenuity of greed.

After the Civil War is over, a doctor who treated the children of enslaved people says (as voiced by Gero):

Everything that was built here
was built on a crime.
The roots run so deep you cannot see them
but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.

In their moral oblivion, the brothers pay no mind, moving on to trade in other commodities and industries; and increasingly, what they buy and sell is as insubstantial as Bitcoin:

Money is a ghost.
Money is numbers.
Money is air.

Of the New York marketplace where now the brothers and others deal and dicker, another character says:

[T]hey seem to sell everything:
iron, fabric, coal
every type of thing you can imagine;
in reality, there’s no trace of it…
There’s nothing there.

History butts in again with the Stock Market crash in 1929. Stock brokers commit suicide. One out of five Americans is fired. Yet once more the Lehmans seize opportunity and rebound, in worth if not in worthiness.

Phillip, son of Emanual, emerges as the firm’s most coldly calculating strategist. As he 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

Scene from Part Three: René Thornton Jr., Mark Nelson, and Edward Gero in ‘The Lehman Trilogy.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

The values-challenged dynasty gets a bitterly comic takedown in a scene wherein Phillip rates women on a 100-point scale as to whom he would woo and wed. Gero plays the imperious Phillip and Nelson hilariously impersonates the unaware women Phillip is assessing. In another scene, by contrast, Mayer’s son Herbert makes a nascent point about sex inequality when he says he has a problem with the fact that a brother is worth more than a sister.

I’ve given just a taste of the telling incidents and fascinating characters in The Lehman Trilogy, which on its face is a multigenerational family drama but at its heart reveals the origin story of wealth inequality in America.

If ever there was a time to reckon with the meaning of The Lehman Trilogy, it’s now. Plus, the Shakespeare Theatre Company production is must-see spectacular.

And you can take that to the bank.

Running Time: Three and a half hours including two intermissions.

The Lehman Trilogy plays through March 30, 2024, presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company at Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($54–$129) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 547-1122. Shakespeare Theatre Company offers discounts for military servicepeople, first responders, senior citizens, young people, and neighbors, as well as rush tickets. Contact the Box Office or visit Shakespearetheatre.org/tickets-and-events/special-offers/for more information. Audio-described and captioned performances are also available.

The Asides program for The Lehman Trilogy is online here.

COVID Safety: All STC spaces are MASK FRIENDLY. This means all patrons, masked and unmasked, are welcome.

The Lehman Trilogy
By Stefano Massini
Adapted by Ben Power
Directed by Arin Arbus

Henry Lehman and Others: Edward Gero
Mayer Lehman and Others: Mark Nelson
Emanuel Lehman and Others: René Thornton Jr.
u/s Henry Lehman and Others, u/s Mayer Lehman and Others: Ms. Julie-Ann Elliott
u/s Emanuel Lehman and Others: Terrance Fleming

Director: Arin Arbus
Scenery Designer: Marsha Ginsberg
Costume Designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao
Sound Design / Composition: Michael Costagliola
Projection Designer: Hannah Wasileski
Physical Movement Director: Lorenzo Pisoni
Jewish Studies Consultant: Pamela S. Nadell
Casting: Danica Rodriguez, Jason Styres
Assistant Director: Dan Hasse
Production Stage Manager: Laura Smith*
Assistant Stage Manager: Joey Blakely*, Samantha Wilhelm*
Dramaturg: Dr. Drew Lichtenberg
Voice and Dialect Coach: Lisa Beley
Historical Consultant: Dr. Soyica Colbert

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


  1. Fabulous review! And so glad you quoted the script! (I had not realized that it was written in blank
    verse!) I’ll be seeing it with a group of theatre buffs at STc’s wonderful Wednesday at noon series on March 20, now nearlv sold out.)


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