Saturday, November 20, 2021

The Lehman Trilogy (Broadway)


Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) was the first to arrive by boat from Bavaria. Fascinated with New York, he heads south and establishes his own garments shop in Alabama. His brother Emanuel (Adrian Lester) follows suit and helps him expand the business, transforming it into a broker for raw cotton between the plantation farmers of the south and the buyers of the north. Youngest sibling Mayer (Adam Godley) is sent last to play referee between the two bickering brothers, his arrival marking the business upswing and the beginning of a family empire. As the eldest brother succumbs to yellow fever, the remaining two bring the business to new heights. Emanuel relocates to New York while Mayer hesitantly follows after the Civil War decimates the south. Through their sons, the younger generation make their own mark in the family business, witnessing the transition to what would become Lehman Brothers and its impending demise in the stock market crisis of 2008.

The play is divided into three chapters. Trilogy. Doh. Clocking in at 3 hours and 15 minutes and with two intermissions, this has got to be one of the longest straight plays I’ve ever seen, not counting Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but that was actually comprised of two separate shows on different days pre-pandemic. Despite its length, the Lehman Trilogy keeps you at the edge of your seat and comes across as one of those Wall Street type of thrillers that go on to win Oscars. The Lehman Trilogy is not a film but with Sam Mendes on the helm, it might as well get its own cinematic adaptation.

A film adaptation would be nice because it would be able to get around the limitations that theater imposes on the material. For one, the set, while innovative as a single rotating cube depicting a company board room, leaves a lot of work for your imagination. The projected background images help a lot in this regard by setting the mood along with the sound effects. Given this constraint, the actors also alternate between portraying their roles and quickly switching to verbal exposition to make up for what cannot be seen or heard onstage.

This play is also limited to just three actors playing the main roles before assuming others down the line. Most of the comedy is derived from the trio playing the other’s wife or love interest. Accent and enunciation are adjusted regularly to depict a sudden switch in character. It is amusing to say the least, and definitely a testament to versatility given the live nature of the material. Such an endeavor requires seasoned thespians for the play to succeed. And it does. Imagine the kilometric lines those three had to memorize as well as the stamina of carrying a three-hour play on their backs.

As for the storyline, it was written in 2014 by Italian playwright Stefano Massini before being published later as a novel. The original West End run was directed by Mendes and reaped several Laurence Olivier Award nominations before crossing to the other side of the pond as Broadway reopened. Beale and Godley reprise the roles they have originated. Even for someone clueless about the 2008 financial crisis which brought about the biggest bankruptcy filing in US history, the play unfolds in a way that makes everything easy to understand and narrates it chronologically from the company’s establishment to its collapse.

Having said that, the play is easy to follow, and it is so engrossing you will probably do a lot of follow-up reading online after watching this, just to complement the knowledge you already got from the play. The narrative, even though grim and a bit sarcastic, is also a legit story about the American dream, on how many of the big business names you see and hear about now were established by immigrants from nothing before going on to define entire industries during their heydays.

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