“The Lehman Trilogy” is a lesson in both playwriting and legacy and gives US audiences a perspective on how things might look from Europe. While a history that begins in 1844 and runs through 163 years might seem wieldy, the production is funny and fleetingly sad, it reminds us that empires can rise and fall and no organization is too big to falter and fail.
The play is divided into three acts, with two 15-minute breaks in between. You’ll definitely want to use these breaks to hit the restroom and stretch your legs. The performance is three hours and 20 minutes long (intermissions included). Still, the time flies and under the direction of Academy, Golden Globe and Tony Award-winner Sam Mendes, things are breezy and the three actors clearly delineate the different characters they take on.
In the first act, Part One, we meet the “Three Brothers.” The oldest brother, Hayum Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), 23, arrives in the US in 1844 from Bavaria, quickly becomes “Henry,” and he settled in Montgomery, Alabama (17 Court Square, Montgomery, Alabama). There, he opens a dry-goods store, “H. Lehman.” In 1947, Henry is soon joined by his brother Mendel, who in the US becomes “Emanuel ” (Howard W. Overshown), and the company becomes “H. Lehman and Bro.” The youngest brother, Mayer, joins them in 1850 and the company becomes “Lehman Brothers.”
Although they originally sold fabric and other dry goods, they begin accepting raw cotton from slave plantations as payment for items and this slowly evolves into a trading business that becomes the most important part of their operation.
Henry dies from yellow fever and the two remaining brothers continue but in 1858, because cotton trading shifts to where the factories are, the brothers decide to open a branch in New York City (119 Liberty Street) with the then 32-year-old Emanuel relocating to fun the office. The Civil War intervenes and Alabama’s economy struggles, but the Lehman Bros. will survive and thrive, but not always agree.
Part Two is about “Fathers & Sons.” As the two remaining brothers age, their places are taken over by Philip (son of Emanuel) and Herbert (son of Mayer). Henry died without issue. The business expands and new ideas are implemented. Only Philip has a son who will join the firm, Robert “Bobbie” Lehman. Eventually, the company survives the Great Depression although many of their associates will not.
Part Three is about the legacy of the Lehmans, “The Immortal.” Non-family members join the firm and the firm moves. With the death of Bobbie in 1969, no Lehman family member will be actively involved in the company. The company continues to grow, but the Subprime Mortgage Crisis in 2008 will fatally cripple the company. The company will file for bankruptcy in that year.
Writer Stefan Massini is an Italian playwright and essayist yet his play was first performed in French translation at the Comédie de Saint-Étienne in Saint-Étienne. The English version was adapted by Ben Power who trimmed it from five to three hours (two 15 minute intermissions) and made its English premiere at the National Theatre in London in 2018 under the direction of Sam Mendes. The National Theatre production came to the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway in March 2020, but was soon suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While I wondered what was trimmed out, this production skips quickly through the years on a set that reminds one at once of two saying: one shouldn’t throw bricks in class houses, and that the writing is on the wall. Think of an oversized clear hard plastic music box that rotates in front of a curved screen with changing backgrounds.
While this form of the play (as opposed to the unseen five-hour version) doesn’t contemplate the position of the Jews as a minority caught in between the White plantation owners and poor Whites and the enslaved Black people in Alabama (as “Driving Miss Daisy” and that Atlanta trilogy did for Georgia), it reminds the audience repeatedly that this is about a Jewish family in the US and is a part of Jewish American history.
While generations of characters pass through the see-through walls, until the very end, only three actors portray these generations. The men portray boys and women and that adds to the levity of “The Lehman Trilogy.” Imagine, having a legacy that would seem too big to fail and yet, like the unsinkable Titanic, the Lehman organization did fail and the repercussions were felt well out of Alabama and New York City.
The program has a helpful family tree to help you keep track, but it is no where near as complicated on the royal family in a Shakespearean historical play. “The Lehman Trilogy” is a charming family history that might be too lightweight for those interested in issues of race, anti-semitism and wars. As an example of how to tell history in an amusing fashion while still preserving a poignant emotional foundation, “The Lehman Trilogy” is fascinating and fun. For writers, this is a must-see.
“The Lehman Trilogy” continues until 10 April 2022 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Downtown L.A. 90012. For tickets and more information, visit the CenterTheatreGroup.org website. For those interested in more information, Peter Chapman’s 2012 book, “The Last of the Imperious Rich: Lehman Brothers, 1844-2008” was used as the chief reference. Chapman is editor and writer for The Financial Times. Massini also used his play as a springboard for a novel, The Lehman Trilogy.