Monday, July 15, 2019

The Lehman Trilogy: Intimate Epic

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley in The Lehman Trilogy. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

I’ve never seen anything quite like The Lehman Trilogy, currently in a limited run at the Piccadilly Theatre in the West End after opening at the National Theatre last summer. The Italian dramatist Stefano Massini conceived it as a five-hour radio play and then it was produced on stage in Paris and Milan; Ben Power’s adaptation runs for nearly three and a half hours and is performed entirely by three master actors, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, under the magnificent direction of Sam Mendes. They play the Lehman brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer respectively (and in order of age), German-Jewish immigrants who land in America in the middle of the nineteenth century and settle in Montgomery, Alabama, where they open a clothing and fabric store that blossoms into a financial empire. But Beale, Miles and Godley also play all the other characters, major and minor, in the enormous saga of a company that withstood the Civil War and the Great Depression, and helped to reshape and redefine the financial world. The Lehman Trilogy is an epic for three actors, who tell their story as they re-enact it. The style is, of all things, Reader’s Theatre, that generally deadly approach to dramatizing novels and narrative poems – but this time around it’s vibrant, electric, mesmerizing. This is one of the best evenings of theatre I’ve ever experienced.

The play begins in 2008, as Lehman Brothers is about to close its doors in the midst of the economic crisis. Es Devlin’s brilliant set is an enormous revolving glass cube that stands in for the skeleton of the Manhattan office, filled with piles of file boxes and a boardroom table, set against a three-quarter cyclorama on which are projected oceanscapes (the Atlantic with the Statue of Liberty, welcoming these immigrants), landscapes (the cotton fields of Montgomery), cityscapes (an increasingly sinister Manhattan), and finally the screens of stock-market computers, bottomless lists of numbers, never still). But as we flash back to Henry’s arrival in the South in 1844, then Emanuel’s and finally Mayer’s, without acquiring additional furniture the set takes on the mood of each new setting – offices, the drawing rooms of mansions, racetracks, extravagant parties, the New York Stock Exchange and so forth. The three performers draw on a combination of physical and vocal shorthand to evoke, for instance, the Montgomery doctor who diagnoses Henry’s yellow fever, Emanuel’s son Philip as a six-year-old violin prodigy and a “talking machine” at fourteen who holds forth at a dizzying speed, and Philip’s cousin Herbert, who unsettles his Hebrew teacher at nine by quarreling with God’s behavior in the Old Testament. (His mantra is “I have a problem with that.”) Using Brechtian gestus, a series of precise physical choices that operate like line drawings to sketch in a complete character portrait, Beale takes on the role of Mayer’s wife Babette and Godley that of Emanuel’s wife Pauline, an aristocrat he meets through her father who laughs at his confident efforts at courtship until he finally breaks down her resistance. Godley also plays all the Jewish women Philip, at eighteen, dates, grading each one out of 100 and settling on Carrie Lauer (who turns out, the script tells us with witty irony, to be only perfect, that is, no less and no more than a list of qualities he can score on a graph).

The play is called The Lehman Trilogy because it’s divided into three acts. The first, “Three Brothers,” covers the early days of the family’s Montgomery store, their evolution from storekeepers to middlemen who buy local cotton and resell it, and Emanuel’s move to New York during the Civil War, where he becomes an eastern aristocrat while Mayer remains in the South. (Henry is dead by now.) At the end of act one, Emanuel persuades Mayer that New York is the center of finance and insists that they close down the Alabama office, signaling both the abandonment of their U.S. roots and their cutting themselves adrift from the community that they, and particularly Mayer, have served in the old-world mode of good citizenship. In act two, “Fathers and Sons,” as the brothers sink into old age the next generation, represented by Philip (Beale), who takes over Lehman Brothers, and his cousin Herbert (Miles), who enters politics and becomes governor of New York, move to center stage. It’s Philip who guides the firm away from moving material in the conventional sense and discovers that the most lucrative product – the product of the twentieth century – is money itself. The act ends with the stock market crash of 1929, “the end of the world.” In act three, “The Immortal,” Philip’s son Bobbie (Godley) saves Lehman Brothers from going under in the Depression and expands into the area of popular entertainment and then, in the rising tide of European unrest in the thirties, into armaments; the concept of buying out of instinct rather than out of need sweeps America; and finance becomes cutthroat. Bobbie lives to be very old but behind his ubiquitous shades the slender Godley looks increasingly like a vampire, and when he’s gone, finally, the business is taken over by strangers, a banker (Pete Peterson, the president of Lehman Brothers) and a stock trader (Lou Gluxman), temperamentally at odds, sharing the office in a bond of mutual benefit and mutual mistrust.

The writing is vivid, poetic and gripping. Massini employs several motifs either as structural elements to bind together its many narrative parts or as dramatic metaphors. Emanuel, Philip and Bobbie are each tormented by a distinct recurring nightmare with special significance for his character. As the stock market ascends to dizzying heights in the years following the First World War, a tightrope walker named Solomon Paprinsky dazzles passersby. Philip’s uncanny skill at picking the right card in a game of trompe l’oeil on the street identifies the gift that enables him to amass untold fortunes with railroads, oil and tobacco: “The winning card is that one.” In the third act the most prominent metaphor is dancing: Bobbie dances on the edge of his grave, desiccated, skeletal, but still breathing, a pas de deux with an invisible devil, as Wall Street and the banks, bound like Peterson and Gluxman in an unholy symbiosis, dance the country into a financial crisis. The most potent motif is the traditions of Judaism that the brothers bring with them from Bavaria and adhere to faithfully. When Henry dies his brothers close down the store to sit shiva for a full week; for Mayer they observe the abridged version, sitting for just three days. While European Jews like their grandfathers are running from Hitler, the Lehmans become Reform Jews. When Philip dies, the firm observes three minutes of silence. Mendes, directing with a delicacy that no one who has seen his stage or film work could have anticipated, adds a motif of his own: the scribbling of markers on the walls of the cube to indicate both new company names and profits. By the end of the play the markings have been erased; they’re no longer needed when the projections of computer screens overwhelm the stage picture.

The Lehman Trilogy is a Marxist account of the history of capitalism rendered in the form of a tragedy, and it’s devastating. It’s about the movement away from community and communitarian values, about the dehumanization of the world of finance. In the last minutes of the play actors we haven’t seen before crowd the boardroom at Lehman Brothers as the company officially goes under, and the effect is jarring, disorienting: these are blank-faced strangers to us, but the world that saw the passing out of life and time of the three brothers is now their world. The three stars, once again taking on the roles of Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, recede into the background, reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer to the dead.

Note: The Lehman Trilogy will be screened in the NT Live series later on this summer.  You can consult the NT Live website to find out where and when it will show up in your city.  

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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