Theater Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Marc Wheeler on March 12, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


Recently I saw a play which forced me to ask: with the amount of stellar entertainment available to us at home, why would anyone spend this much money to trek across town and see this drivel? Whatever “supporting the arts” or “supporting live theater” means shouldn’t feel like homework. As a theater lover, I know there are reasons why we opt to see stories live. Thankfully, those reasons showed up for me this week at the Ahmanson Theatre when The Lehman Trilogy sweet-nothing’d in my ear: This is why you see theater, Marc! This. Is. Why.

Adam Godley, Howard W. Overshown and Simon Russell Beale

The Lehman Trilogy is a sweeping epic directed by the incomparable Sam Mendes. Known for his brilliant 1993 Cabaret revival and such lauded films as American Beauty and 1917, this Tony and Academy Award-winning Brit knows exactly what he’s doing in bringing such a simply told, but massive play to life. Written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and adapted for The National Theatre by Ben Power, The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emanuel (Howard W. Overshown), and Mayer (Adam Godley) Lehman — three Bavarian Jewish brothers who immigrated to the United States in the 1800s and founded what would become Lehman Brothers. Yes, that Lehman Brothers, one of the key players in the 2007-2008 Global Financial Crisis whose record-breaking bankruptcy — the largest in U.S. history — ushered in the Great Recession. The Lehman Trilogy rewinds the clock 164 years earlier to the humble beginnings of three scrappy, immigrant brothers daring to chase the American Dream.

Howard W. Overshown, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley

The Lehman Trilogy covers this “rags-to-riches-to-rags-again” tale like the rollercoaster ride it is. In many ways, the Lehman story is a metaphor for America itself — even if our ride continues after their fateful explosion on the tracks years ago. The brothers start small with a dry goods store. This enterprise expands to cotton and railways … television and banking … from Alabama to New York, then eventually, the world. It’s easy to see the parallels with America’s own trajectory. Because the play is so narrowly focused on this particular family, it’s almost as if the Lehman story is also America’s story. At the very least, it’s as American as apple pie. Or war. Or unchecked capitalism pulsing through the country’s red-white-and-bloodstream.

Howard W. Overshown, Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale

Power’s adaptation of Massini’s script is wondrous. Not only does it manage to cram more than a century-and-a-half of material into 3 hours and 20 minutes (the 2013 French premiere was a full 5 hours), it does so in a way that doesn’t feel bogged-down or incomprehensible. Instead of utilizing full-length dialogue in typical play fashion, it opts instead for a third-person narrative with minimal banter. The actors embody character descriptions and plot twists as if they’re reciting a Dickensian novel. It’s a bold choice, for sure. But in a way, it’s the only choice there is: this is a tale of brothers — of America; sit down, it seems to say; let us tell you a story.

Howard W. Overshown, Adam Godley and Simon Russell Beale

It’s a wonder the play works as well as it does. In the script’s genius, though, catch-phrases are repeated to make characters and events memorable. Similarly, astute characterizations by the actors, aided only by small costume pieces (e.g. a pair of glasses), help the audience keep track of who’s who. The choice of using only three actors works in the play’s favor. As the Lehman family tree grows and we’re introduced to secondary, tertiary characters—all played by the actors we originally know as Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer — we’re visually reminded of the company’s roots in every other character we meet. This works well until, of course, reality rears its head and asks: how long can any business that goes global retain its humble origins? Even the Lehman’s Jewish traditions get more-or-less discarded: their old god replaced with greener, crisper ones.

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Howard W. Overshown

Tailored smartly by Katrina Lindsay in period three-piece suits, the three actors work beautifully off each other. That they’re able to make so many characters distinct in our minds is proof of their brilliance. The shorter, more portly Simon Russell Beale can cigar-smoke a deal with the best of ‘em as Henry (the “head” of operations), or coquettishly sashay to comic effect as a female love interest. Howard W. Overshown as the “middle child” Emanuel makes for an excellent “arm,” taking dictation from his older brother to keep the operations running smoothly. The tall and lanky Adam Godley who plays Mayer — the baby-faced “baby” of the family—shows some of his best wheelin’-and-dealin’ as “Bobbie,” a star grandkid who rises up the ranks of the family business. Acting as a fourth character of sorts is composer Nick Powell’s glorious score. Performed on a front-of-stage piano by Rebekah Bruce (alternating with Em Goldman), the regally haunting work seems to drink from the same melodical waters that makes the score from the TV series Succession (which also involves a globally domineering family) so auditorily absorbing. Under music director Candida Caldicot’s helm, the music adds a singular sophistication to the piece.

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Howard W. Overshown

An elegant, but relatively barebones set designed by Es Devlin showcases a giant rotating glass cube serving as the play’s locales, particularly its office spaces. The glass walls and dividers, lit beautifully by Jon Clark, offer a transparency into the lives of our players. Throughout the show, the actors write on these walls — perhaps as harbingers of things to come. Behind this set is a giant screen where video designer Luke Halls displays mostly gray-scale imagery like serene ocean waters, cotton plantations, and the appearance of the Statue of Liberty when it first makes its appearance on the New York horizon. It’s sublime. The screen also works to a dizzying effect when the Lehmans and their business spiral out of control. Composer and sound designer Powell, with co-designer Dominic Bilkey, amp-up these stakes chillingly.

Howard W. Overshown, Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley

Ask anyone what they think of when they hear the words “Lehman Brothers” and I’m sure “Wall Street crash,” “bursting housing bubble,” “subprime mortgages,” and “predatory lending” would come to mind. Yet, instead of focusing on the destruction caused by any of the responsible financial giants—the “Frankenstein’s monsters,” if you will — Massini opts instead to tell us about the lineage of visionaries behind one of them. It’s this behind-the-scenes look of how an American Dream became America’s Nightmare that makes this work so captivating. That and the fact that there are feats of human achievement that must be experienced live. The Lehman Trilogy gives us an artistry that film and television can’t provide: over three full acts and three full hours, three actors create “theater magic” live on stage each night. Beyond the script and direction, the fate of the storytelling lies all on their shoulders, with no chance to call “line” or to “fix it in post.” Mendes’s production gives us only what we need and nothing more — our imaginations fill in the rest. There are reasons why we go to the theater that have nothing to do with merely “supporting the arts” but everything to do with the thrill of it. I know I might sound like a Lehman when I say this, but seriously: “trust me.” This exquisite work is such a reason.

Simon Russell Beale, Howard W. Overshown and Adam Godley

photos by Craig Schwartz Photography

The Lehman Brothers
presented by Center Theatre Group
The National Theatre and Neal Street Productions
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave.
ends on April 6, 2022
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG

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