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Review: A stunningly staged ‘Lehman Trilogy’ critiques and romanticizes American capitalism

Three men of varying ages in dark suits onstage.
Adam Godley, left, Simon Russell Beale and Howard W. Overshown in “The Lehman Trilogy” at the Ahmanson Theater.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
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The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was a watershed moment in what was eventually dubbed the Great Recession. The financial services giant, once presumed to be too big to fail, became a symbol — no, an object lesson — of Wall Street’s wanton recklessness.

Few following the apocalyptic headlines at the time would have been familiar with the firm’s origins as a dry-goods store in the antebellum South. Henry Lehman, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria, arrived in the United States in 1844 and founded a small retail business in Montgomery, Ala. His brothers, Emanuel and Mayer, soon followed, and together they proved remarkably adept at responding to market needs and making the most of other people’s catastrophes.

How a shop that sold suits and fabrics grew into a mighty investment bank (the fourth largest in the country at the time of its demise) is the subject of “The Lehman Trilogy,” a three-act epic adapted by Ben Power from Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s hit European drama. This English-language version, which had its premiere at London’s National Theatre in 2018, arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre fresh from its heralded Broadway run.

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The focus of the play, which opened Sunday in a Sam Mendes-directed production of lyrical splendor, isn’t the subprime mortgage crisis. The words “credit default swap” are blessedly unspoken. But “The Lehman Trilogy” traces the perversion of an economic logic that went from generating astonishing family wealth to nearly capsizing the global economy.

Simon Russell Beale.
What is most notable about the mise-en-scène is the perfect integration of the actors, whose performances are never eclipsed by the theatrical swirl.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

The subject matter may sound dry to those who automatically discard the business section of a newspaper, but the play’s ambition is soaring. “The Lehman Trilogy” joins Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” and Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk” in kinetically dramatizing how American capitalism lost its way.

Yet it’s not so much the excellence of the tale as the superlative nature of the theatrical telling that sets this production apart. “The Lehman Trilogy” is constructed as a dramatic elegy, an oral history delivered as though it were written by a descendant of Homer. Mendes, an Oscar- and Tony-winning director (“American Beauty, “The Ferryman”), responds to the play’s presentational style with one of the finest stagings of his distinguished career.

Words are intoned over a score credited to sound designer Nick Powell and performed by a pianist (Rebekah Bruce at Sunday’s performance) at the foot of the stage. The ingenious set by Es Devlin, a rotating glass cube revealing the Lehman Brothers New York office on the eve of the company’s collapse, serves as a metaphor for “the magical music box of America,” whose siren song lured immigrants to pursue a dream of boundless opportunity.

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The modernity of the scenic design is no obstacle for a play that is nearly out of time before it emerges from the Great Depression. The video design by Luke Halls creates a poetic cyclorama of sea and skyline that conjures history in black-and-white imagery and occasionally summons the nightmares of its characters in gory color.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a production as well-fitted to the Ahmanson stage as this one. What is most notable about the mise-en-scène is the perfect integration of the actors, whose performances are never eclipsed by the theatrical swirl. It is through their art that this chronicle spanning more than 160 years succeeds despite its repetitiveness, unbalanced plotting and final-act blurriness.

Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Howard W. Overshown.
The bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was a watershed moment in what was eventually dubbed the Great Recession.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Two of the three cast members, Simon Russell Beale, a Shakespearean virtuoso with a five-octave range of irony, and Adam Godley, a performer with clown-like plasticity, have been with “The Lehman Trilogy” since London. Howard W. Overshown, holding his own with crisp authority, has joined the cast for this Los Angeles outing, replacing Broadway cast member Adrian Lester, who stepped into the part vacated by Ben Miles, a key member of the original ensemble.

“Mesmerizing” is a cliché of theater reviewing, but Beale, Godley and Overshown wield a powerful incantatory spell. The nearly 3½-hour running time (which includes two intermissions) is a test of endurance. But broken up as it is into roughly hourlong episodes, the production never feels plodding. Credit the actors, who make even the play’s rough patches pulse with theatrical life.

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Beale launches the dramatic journey as Henry Lehman, the eldest and brainiest of the three brothers, just as he’s getting off the boat in New York. Overshown subsequently appears as Emanuel, nicknamed “the arm” for his hot temper and general toughness. Last but not least, Godley enters as Mayer, affectionately called “the potato” but depended upon by his bickering siblings as their levelheaded mediator.

The first act, the most gripping of the three, recounts the rise of the family business, which morphed from selling clothes and fabric to poor local workers to supplying all that was needed to produce the area’s cotton. After a fire wiped out the town’s plantations, the Lehmans assumed the position of lenders. By the time the Civil War broke out, they were well-established middlemen, buying raw cotton and shipping it up north for a profit. A New York office naturally became the center of an operation that after the Civil War moved on to more lucrative commodities.

Henry is the first to die, but Beale is only getting started. In addition to his narrating duties, he takes on other parts when needed, including a plantation owner (with a good-ol’-boy Southern accent) and a headstrong divorcée who ensnares a Lehman scion. But his most important role after Henry is Philip, son of Emanuel, who is a prodigy of business, possessed of a preternatural talent for identifying opportunities everyone else is too distracted to notice.

The other actors similarly transition along the family tree, but fluidity is part of the playing style from the beginning. In fact, the German accents don’t ever entirely disappear from view, even as the Old World recedes into the distance. “The Lehman Trilogy” is a theatrical palimpsest in which the past is always visibly lurking under the ever-changing present.

Adam Godley, a performer with clown-like plasticity, has been with “The Lehman Trilogy” since London.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

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Assimilation brings disconnection along with untold riches. Capitalism acts as an accelerant, not so much for the play but for the characters, who are thrown into overdrive, desperate to extend generational wealth and power. Time is stolen from them, and the murmur of Jewish prayers subsides. After Henry dies, the brothers sit shiva for a week. When Mayer dies, only three days is permitted. By the time Philip shuffles off his mortal coil, the company shuts down for a mere three minutes.

For all its critical perspective, “The Lehman Trilogy” takes a somewhat romantic view of American capitalism. There’s an undercurrent of nostalgia for the “good old days” when buying and selling involved tangible goods. A turning point occurs when Philip declares to his father that they are now “merchants of money.” The business has become abstract, a numbers game that is increasingly open to manipulation and high-risk maneuvering.

Besotted with an earlier edition of the American Dream, the one favored by 19th century European immigrants, Massini gives short shrift to the way the Lehman fortune was dependent on the institution of slavery. In this version of the script, Mayer, not wanting to leave Montgomery after the Civil War, is told that “everything that was built here was built on a crime.” But the South is still largely seen as the launching pad for one family’s rise.

History is presented as a series of bullet points — wars, economic earthquakes, technological breakthroughs. But lived experience is elided. Whether antisemitism darkened the Lehman brothers’ early days in Alabama is a question no more dwelled upon than the living conditions of the enslaved workers who carried the plantation economy.

A longing runs through the play for the older economic order, which is viewed as more gentlemanly and meritocratic than the brash new wave ushered in by predatory traders, who are more comfortable with computers than with human beings.

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By the time Robert Lehman, Philip’s Yale-educated son who makes Faustian bargains to keep the company competitive in the second half of the 20th century, dies, there are no more Lehmans in the boardroom. But the seeds of destruction were planted long ago with the family’s hands.

Beale, Godley and Overshown are dressed throughout in mourning suits, which is appropriate for a play that says a kaddish for American capitalism. “The Lehman Trilogy” is at once overlong and incomplete, but the theatrical picture is so deftly drawn that it leaves a haunting image of a nation grieving its own myth.

Howard W. Overshown Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley.
“The Lehman Trilogy” takes a somewhat romantic view of American capitalism.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

'The Lehman Trilogy'


Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 10. Call for exceptions.

Tickets: $35-$225 (subject to change)

Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org

Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination and booster is required. Masks are required at all times. (Check website for changes.)

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