By Harry Forbes
To cut to the chase, this thrillingly theatrical production of Stefano Massini’s international hit, skillfully adapted by Ben Power, and magnificently directed by Sam Mendes, should not be missed. Starting life in its English version at Britain’s National Theatre, the epic play transferred to the West End, had a limited run at the Park Avenue Armory in 2019, and was all set to open on Broadway with its original cast members Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles before the pandemic hit.
But here it is, back at last, now with the superb Adrian Lester taking Ben Miles’ role of Emmanuel Lehman, flanking Beale’s Henry Lehman and Godley’s Mayer Lehman. (An NT Live streaming from the West End preserves the original cast.) The multi-generational drama traces the arrival of the three Jewish brothers from Bavaria in the mid-19th century starting up their fabric and later cotton enterprise (first fabrics, then raw cotton) in pre-Civil War Montgomery, Alabama through establishing a foothold in New York at 119 Liberty Street, in coffee, railways, and banking, through the Great Depression, and finally the 21st century demise of the major investment firm when they filed for bankruptcy in 2008.
Over the course of nearly three and a half hours, the bravura actors not only provide narration in the third person, but play all the roles. These include the children and grandchildren of the brothers, starting with Emmanuel’s fast-talking but sharp as a tack son Philip (Beale) who values “strategy” above all virtues (as we observe when, as a young man, he boldly clinches a railway deal), and Philips’s horserace-and-art collecting-loving son, the increasingly ruthless Bobbie (Godley), as well as all the other non-family characters they encounter, and the trading division people who succeeded them. They seamlessly morph from one to the other, young and old, male and female, using a variety of voices, but always outfitted in Katrina Lindsay’s period black frock coats from the opening scenes. The performances are simply sensational. This is one of those theatrical feats that make you wonder how they can do it night after night, and twice on Saturdays! It’s easy to forget you’re watching only three actors. (The original European productions had 13.)
These are three of the greatest English actors, and “The Lehman Trilogy” might just be the pinnacle of their already distinguished careers.
The first of three acts focuses on eldest brother Henry’s arrival in 1844, followed shortly after by middle brother Emmanuel and then youngest Mayer, who originally served as an arbitrator between Henry who considered himself the “head,” and Emmanuel who was seen as the “arm.”
The action plays out on Es Devlin’s spectacular revolving cube set, glassed in on three sides and allowing beautifully fluid changes of scene and period, and even allowing some writing on the walls. The iconic packing boxes familiar from news footage of Lehman’s dissolution become props throughout the performance. Jon Clark’s masterful lighting, and Luke Halls’ dazzling background cyclorama video design, and Nick Powell’s crystalline sound and musical underscoring (played live) contribute mightily to the compelling story. Emmanuel’s recurring nightmare of impending doom becomes a visually dazzling coup de theatre with all the theatrical stops being pulled. So, too, the 1929 stock market crash is another visual triumph.
Massini/Powers’ narrative rivets from start to finish -- it’s fair to say than, in spite of the play’s length, there’s not a dull moment, with plenty of humor amid all the business wheeling and dealing as in the scenes where Emmanual and Mayer, and later Philip, woo their wives-to-be. And there are countless moments that are pure poetry.
As the family’s narrative unfolds, we get a sharp overview of the unraveling of the American dream, and the gradual degradation of capitalism. The strict Shiva observance, which we observe after a character’s death early in the play, morphs pointedly into shorter and shorter periods of mourning as the years go by, and business interests trump hallowed tradition.
Powers has done a masterful job of condensing the original five hour Italian version into its present length. The third act, jam-packed with incident as it is, does feel a bit rushed and diffuse, but that’s a minor carp in an overall magnificent achievement.
This is theatrical storytelling at its most sublime.
(Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41 Street; Ticketmaster.com; through January 2)
Photo by Julieta Cervantes: (l.-r.) Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester