Once Upon a Time, This Is What Lehman Brothers Stood For
The Daily Beast
March 28, 2019
Too smooth and with minimal mess, ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ focuses on the lives and times of the banking dynasty, whose company imploded in the 2008 financial crisis.
There is clearly a lot of exacting effort that went into making The Lehman Trilogy. The precise performances—by Adam Godley, Ben Miles, and most of all by Simon Russell Beale—as the three original Lehman brothers and many other characters besides, are a performative feast.
As staged in the cavernous Armory (through April 20), the story is large and ambitious too: in three-and-a-half hours we travel from the founding of the Lehman Brothers company by Henry Lehman in 1844 in Alabama to its destruction, buried by the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent global financial meltdown of 2008.
The play, which received rave reviews in London last year, looks beautiful, and will look even more beautiful if you do not end up getting a seat on the right-hand side of the theater (as you face the stage), but instead in the center and on the left. Please take this advice as the most important, practical piece of information before booking a ticket.
Es Devlin’s revolving cube of the set is set stage left (if you are facing the stage), and while it does spin occasionally on a right-facing axis, for those sitting on the right-hand side of the Armory your gaze and body will be turning left for most of the show. In front of you, sitting on the right-hand side of the Armory, there is no cube, no actors, just a lone pianist and a lot of black, wet-looking stage.
The playing of that piano, coupled with the language and stunning projections behind the cube by Luke Halls, take us from the plantations of slavery-era Alabama to glassy 21st century Manhattan, and underscore the dream-like quality of the play. Sometimes, New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty face us. And when the Swinging Sixties hit, and all three actors are doing the Twist while standing on boxes, suddenly the projections fizz and blur to an intense, mesmerizing rapidity.
The story is grand, and yet also very self-contained, timid, and safe; this is more allegory than history and more factsheet than drama.
The historical sweep of the Lehman story takes in racism, immigration, fraternal and familial tensions, capitalism, computers, Hollywood, and hubris. But it doesn’t spend enough time sketching character to make that history feel more than well-learned recitation. The three actors and their director treat the Lehman story as a precise, clean ballet. Stefano Massini’s script, adapted by Ben Power, is one of wit, debate, poetry and soliloquy; not mess, complication, and moral ambiguity.
The three actors play not just the three original brothers, but also their wives Pauline and Babette. Then they play their sons, Philip and Herbert, and Philip’s wife, Carrie. They play Bobbie, Philip and Carrie’s son, and just wait for Ruth Lamar, Bobbie’s vamp-to-the-max first wife. When Bobbie dies in 1969, the company first passes into the hands of Lewis ‘Lew’ Glucksman, then Pete Peterson, and finally Dick Fuld.
Presumably because Philip, Herbert, and Bobbie were alive at the time, the play evokes the Great Depression of 1929 (and the suicides of people on Wall Street at the time), rather than the 2008 crash, when no Lehmans were still alive to see the eradication of the family company.
One consistently jarring note is the pantomime Southern belle-accenting and stereotyped flutteriness of the female characters. The play may have written women into the action, but it doesn’t know what to do with them, rather than just encourage us to laugh at the fact that three men are playing them. It seems both juvenile and dismissive, and the women end up feeling one-dimensional.
As time spins on, so does that glass cube: a boardroom and two smaller office spaces. Through time, figures are written on its glass sides, first names of companies also. And then finally, emptiness, the void that 2008 heralds.
The story is dense with detail, too much; it’s like a clever child in class with its hand up all the time. And if it is not shooting detail at you, it is shooting abstract expressions of woe, joy, ambition, fear, and terror. Terrible, paralyzing dreams afflict the characters, which look stunning in design terms while remaining utterly predictable as portents of doom.
The Lehman Trilogy looks so seductive, and sounds so big, that you hardly get to know the brothers and their offspring. The script ultimately proposes a snoozy, well-trodden-before set of homilies that capitalists were so much nicer and better in the olden days, when people were selling and making real things, than dealing in the mega-figured financial abstractions of today.
Just as so many finance-world related plays and movies, when things go mad and bad, here too in The Lehman Trilogy are screens of impossible-to-understand figures going up, going down, indecipherable and chaotic.
Our audience responded most when Russell Beale, Godley, and Miles endowed their characters with precise feelings, precise motivations, precise characteristics, and had fun—like Philip’s garrulous self-certainty and Bobbie’s rock-star-styled strutting. The second section of trilogy, ‘Fathers and Sons,’ is the most involving and intimate, focusing on the love, frustrations, and passing of batons between generations.
Bobbie died in 1969, and the play doesn’t have the desire to sketch the last 39 years of Lehman Brothers’ life after his death. There are a few pious intonations about what went wrong and about bad unfettered capitalism, and that’s it.
It feels an inadequate coda. For a play that is so ruminative about the foundations of a company it feels perverse to gloss so quickly over the circumstances of its destruction. But The Lehman Trilogy is more nostalgic for what it sees as the fundamental decency of its ghosts, rather than the misdeeds of those that swooped in later.