The intertwined histories of American business and finance — our great capitalist saga — hold virtually zero interest to cultural elites. The entire library of American cinema and theater contains few works that set out to celebrate or even dispassionately to chronicle, rather than savage or satirize, the details of how great businesses were made and the wonders they wrought. That’s why the three-hour staging of the history of Lehman Brothers is such a surprising — no, staggering — achievement. Housed in the suitably august Park Avenue Armory in New York City, The Lehman Trilogy is one of the finest plays I’ve ever seen.
The rise of the three Lehman brothers, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria in the mid 19th century, is interwoven with the economic, political, and even cultural story of the United States, touching everything from Reconstruction to the Panama Canal and the making of King Kong. As directed by Sam Mendes, the English film and theater director whose many credits include Skyfall, American Beauty, and Broadway’s riveting IRA play The Ferryman, The Lehman Trilogy is a captivating three-and-a-half-hour epic, a kind of Angels in America of capitalism. I kept waiting for the playwright, an Italian I had never previously heard of named Stefano Massini, to pull the rug out and inform us in dire, hectoring tones that lending money or earning profits or engaging in complex financial transactions is evil. That moment never comes, not even when Lehman collapses infamously in September 2008. The death of Lehman is properly thought of as a tragedy, and so it is in this majestic play.
Men in business suits are sometimes spotted at the theater, but usually grumbling at the end of an invisible leash tightly gripped by their culture-loving wives. The Lehman Trilogy, which earned a sponsorship from the Wall Street Journal, is something different, an attraction of genuine interest to financiers (who appeared by the score on opening night) and anyone who wonders how the tool that is capital built and continues to build American wealth.
Mendes stages the work on a single set — a glassed-in contemporary conference room — against a vast semi-circular backdrop upon which he projects the restlessly changing scenery of 150 years of American dynamism. Three expert British actors — the production is on loan to us from London, to which it will shortly return — play all of the speaking parts, everyone from babies to teenaged coquettes to ancient rabbis. Simon Russell Beale, one of the most esteemed stage actors alive, plays Henry Lehman, who arrives in New York Harbor in 1844 and makes his way to Montgomery, Ala., to open a tiny store selling cloth by the yard, or even by the inch. Later he is joined by his two younger brothers, one the exacting Emanuel Lehman (Ben Miles) and the other the ingratiating Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley).
Having each actor move deftly from character turns to third-person narration, Massini (whose play was adapted by Ben Power) is able to work in a phenomenal amount of information about various business deals, romantic liaisons, and historical events as the play races through the decades. It’s impossible to imagine a more spellbinding evening of theater, and the way the actors interact with one another — they are so frequently in motion that the play is practically a dance, to the tune of a near-constant piano score played live at the front of the stage — is precision itself.
Lehman began as well as ended in conflagration: When a massive fire lays waste to neighboring plantations around Montgomery, the shopkeepers see an opportunity to provide the instruments of rebuilding — on credit. Buying a few wagon loads of raw cotton, they are surprised to find out how easily the staple could be resold to a Northern factory owner at a profit. They engage to buy up as much cotton as they can and resell it, which requires opening an office in America’s marketplace in downtown Manhattan. That they are greatly enriching themselves in the process and creating a dynasty of prosperity for their descendants is marvelous, thrilling, inspiring.
Men like the Lehmans built America as surely as men like Henry Ford did, and yet America’s admiration for the bankers has always been grudging. Perhaps the work they do, being esoteric and invisible, makes us suspicious. Perhaps ancient moral and religious injunctions against lending money at interest play a role in our mistrust. No one has a problem with Apple or Amazon for marking up their products, and yet we forever complain about bank profits despite their crucial role in our story. Midway through the play, as a railroad is being built, Philip Lehman (Emanuel’s son, played by Beale) demands a guaranteed profit of $10 million for financing it. The railroad man hesitates but ultimately and correctly concludes that the price is fair. So the business is concluded and America continues not to move forward but to leap forward.
Such bargaining is rendered with an exceptional gift for clarity; rare is the Wall Street saga that is easily understood but also doesn’t seem dumbed down. Amid all of the deal-making, though, there are wonderful grace notes and extended metaphors (the Depression is a rain storm, with Philip’s son Robert Lehman, played by Godley, as Noah; the era of split-second electronic banking four decades later is reimagined as a frantic dance sequence enacted by Robert, this time with an even more mesmerizing turn by Godley to stop the show). The haunting central image of the play is the one that adorns the program: a Wall Street tightrope walker. As resourceful as the Lehmans are, as hard-working and alert and insightful as anyone in business may be, catastrophe is always within sight. The fall of the House of Lehman was even swifter than its astonishing rise.
Because the play must return to London in May, this production will continue only until April 20, and is likely to sell out quickly. It’s far too brilliant to be limited to such a brief run, though, and I expect it will return to New York in some form or other. Since that isn’t guaranteed don’t forgo the opportunity to experience this theatrical tour de force.