With only a single set and three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester, and Adam Godley—Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy covers over one hundred fifty years of the title company’s history. Caged in a glass conference room, the brothers and their sons and grandsons will rise to the top of American business before crashing into bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. They will shed their Old World customs and garb and stick their fingers into every crevice of American capital, from nineteenth-century chattel slavery to twentieth-century information technology. By the time the housing crisis upends the American economy, none of their relatives will sit on the company’s board.
The Lehman Brothers, then, is massive in scope, attempting to depict macrohistory through the stories of a single exemplary family; it is a kind of theatrical Forsyte Saga. This is not a bad idea but one that requires an immense talent for thematic clarity and narrative abridgment. Massini, unfortunately, does not have such talent, though he has hit on one ingenious move: his characters both live and narrative their lives, at times explaining what happened and at times enacting it. Thus, in one breath, Mayer Lehman (Godley) can both tell you he is falling in love (“Mayer has had other things on his mind”) and show you (“Babette, as beautiful as the moon“). It may sound tiresome on the page, but it introduces a welcome breeziness to the action—a breeziness that is missing elsewhere.
Consider, for example, the story of Pete Peterson (Beale), a child of Greek immigrants who would serve as the first non-Lehman chairman of Lehman Brothers. About halfway through the play, we meet Peterson’s father, watch him listen to the radio, hear him educate his son in the family business. Massini occasionally checks in with Peterson before he ascends to the highest rung of the company, suggesting he will play a central role in this narrative. But his chairmanship lasts for a total of about three minutes of stage time. Why the elaborate backstory? Unclear. The same goes for Lewis Gluckman (Lester), the Wall Street trader who would succeed Peterson. Why include them at all? Perhaps in Massini’s novel version, these various narrative strands are more thoroughly integrated into the story at large. Here, they play like detours and afterthoughts.
Our playwright has also placed an enormous burden on his actors, who do the best they can under the circumstances. But there are over seventy characters in The Lehman Trilogy, and thus Beale, Lester, and Godley all rely to varying degrees on caricature. This is most notable when they are tasked with playing female roles and lean into high-pitched voices and exaggerated daintiness. These moments earned some laughter from the audience, but does the silliness serve the play? I can’t see how.
Finally, there is the question of our sympathies. The original Lehman brothers made their money buying southern cotton and selling it to northern industrialists. In their final incarnation, they were selling homes to buyers who could not afford them. Despite an obligatory acknowledgment that “Everything that was built here was built on a crime”—a line, incidentally, that was only added recently—Massini doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the ethical shortcomings of his characters. He does not have the irony of a John Galsworthy, and as a result, The Lehman Brothers ultimately relinquishes responsibility for the most important questions it raises.
The Lehman Trilogy runs through January 2nd at the Nederlander Theatre. 208 W. 41st Street New York, NY. 3 hours 15 minutes. Two intermissions. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.