Theater Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY (Huntington Theatre, Boston MA)

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by Lynne Weiss on June 29, 2023

in Theater-Boston,Theater-Regional


Steven Skybell (Henry Lehman), Joshua David Robinson (Emanuel Lehman), and Firdous Bamji (Mayer Lehman) absolutely stunned in the the first American-made production of The Lehman Trilogy, which opened at The Huntington last week. They slipped in and out of multiple roles, including babies, toddlers, men of diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, and numerous women, with nary a change of costume or makeup but purely through accents, rhythm of speech, and gestures. This is what we call “acting,” and under Carey Perloff’s stunning direction, Stefano Massini’s phenomenal play (English adaptation by Ben Power) brought us beautifully executed examples of that art. (Perloff is the former artistic director of SF’s A.C.T.)

Steven Skybell, Firdous Bamji
Firdous Bamji, Joshua David Robinson

Just as the Lehman Brothers famously created something (money) from nothing (an idea about how to do business, rather than actual products), the simple set of packing crates, lights, and projections (Sara Brown, sets; Robert Wierzel, lights; Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, projections) carries us from a ship that sways convincingly, to a fire that destroys much of Montgomery, Alabama, through several weddings, a Nebraska kitchen, and a Chicago factory to nightmarish visions of oncoming trains and Wall Street. We have to believe it to make it work, and we do, just as people believed in the stock market (until they didn’t, in 1929) and then again in so many other financial fantasies (until they didn’t, in 2008).

Joshua David Robinson, Firdous Bamji, Steven Skybell
Joshua David Robinson, Firdous Bamji, Steven Skybell, Joe LaRocca

The many “trilogies” in The Lehman Trilogy add up to an amazing night of theater. We start with the three brothers: Henry (originally Heyum), Emanuel, and Mayer, who arrive in Montgomery, Alabama, fresh off the boat from Bavaria. Then we will have the three generations of Lehmans: the previously named brothers, their offspring Philip and Herbert (who leaves the business to become New York State governor and then a U.S. Senator), and finally Robert “Bobbie” Lehman, the last of the Lehmans to be involved in the business bearing the family name, all presented in three acts over a period of more than three hours. Finally, we have Joe LaRocca, evocatively marking changes in tone and mood with three instruments — clarinet, flute, and saxophone — played from different positions on the stage.

Firdous Bamji, Steven Skybell, Joshua David Robinson
Firdous Bamji, Joshua David Robinson

But this little mathematical summary does not convey the sheer range and complexity of what you will see, which is a truly epic portrayal of the history of not only one family that built a financial empire, but a slice of U.S. history from 1844–2008 as viewed through the very specific lens of capitalism. The play does not portray the extent to which the institution of slavery allowed the Lehmans to build their first fortune as traders in cotton and later tobacco and coffee (they also owned a number of enslaved people). Still, the issue is fleetingly addressed when one of the characters comments on the Lehman’s Alabama business that “everything built here was built on a crime.” Likewise, some may see the play as fueling anti-Semitism by emphasizing the avariciousness of these Jewish brothers and their descendants, yet the script also charts the loss of religious observance and values within the generations of Lehmans as their wealth increases. The complexity of these issues and the growth of America itself winds its way through the evening, leaving you devastated and uplifted at the same time. It’s a not-to-be-missed marvel.

photos by T. Charles Erikson

The Lehman Trilogy
Huntington Theatre Company
The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston
ends on July 16, 2023 EXTENDED to July 23, 2023
for tickets, call 617-266-0800 or visit Huntington

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