A man in a sharp suit and dress shoes walks a tightrope between two skyscrapers against the New York City skyline. A silhouette – unmistakable – of the Empire State Building can be seen in the distance.
This is the image promoting The Lehman Trilogy, a gripping three-and-a-half-hour play (including intermissions) currently showing at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, which tells the story of the Lehman family and the collapse of their investment-banking firm, Lehman Brothers, precipitated by the 2008 global financial crisis.
The story begins in 1844, when Hayum Lehmann (soon to be called “Henry Lehman”), the son of a Bavarian cattle merchant, arrived at New York Harbor and set up camp in Montgomery, Ala., later joined by his brothers Emanuel and Mayer. From Eastern Europe to the Deep South to New York City; from cotton to coffee to pure investment banking; from the Civil War to the Great Depression to the 2008 crash – The Lehman Trilogy is a story of immigrants, showcasing American success and Jewish resilience.
Written by Stefano Massini, an Italian playwright, the play was translated from Italian by Mirella Cheeseman and adapted by Ben Power. At the Park Avenue Armory, it is brought to life by the National Theatre and Neal Street Productions. Sam Mendes directs Adam Godley, Ben Miles, and Simon Russell Beale – three fine actors – and the result is close to perfection.
As the curtain rises, the audience is faced with a familiar sight: a corporate New York office. Encased by glass walls that the cast members write on – giving the impression of continuity – the set remains unaltered throughout the story’s two centuries of Lehman family lineage. The constant presence of the New York office serves to remind the audience that though this is a story of the Lehmans’ rise, it will culminate with their downfall.
It is no small task for a cast of three to explain, in one sitting, and without any scene or costume changes, how the Lehman Brothers soared to such heights, balanced on a tightrope, slipped so suddenly, and then fell from the sky. Naturally, the play is more preoccupied with human psychology than with economics. And in that regard, acting talent goes a long way.
Each cast member plays multiple characters in addition to narrating the story. Still dressed in a business suit, for instance, Beale plays an aged rabbi, a coy teen girl, a young boy, as well as the adult Henry Lehman and Philip Lehman. Every performance – down to accent and gestures – is superbly done. Sometimes it’s hilarious; at other times, profoundly moving.
Of course, we are also encouraged to suspend our disbelief by the richness of the text itself. When a new character is described as “a smile surrounded by a person,” it did not matter that I could not see his face from where I was sat. I knew exactly what was meant. I suspect that The Lehman Trilogy would work well as a novel.
All the characters are warm and flawed. Everybody is ordinary, even when they are extraordinary. There are no absolute heroes nor absolute villains. Yet Massini, who is Jewish, has clearly embedded a moral lesson: With success comes the tendency to neglect one’s faith. And as faith in God dwindles, dependence on money and power grows.
Mayer and Emanuel sit shiva for a week after the death of Henry when he dies of yellow fever; but a generation later, when Philip Lehman dies, his family mourns for only a few short minutes. Outside of the family, the crash reveals the precariousness of a life built, and a soul hooked, on money. Bankers shot themselves and threw themselves off of buildings.
When the play’s finale comes, we are ready for it. The Great Recession arrives and on September 15, 2008 – after the Federal Reserve declines to guarantee its loans – Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt. The audience, meanwhile, leaves much richer for having watched this modern masterpiece.