Monday, November 1, 2021

Review - The Lehman Trilogy

The Lehman Trilogy is a play not to be missed, wth an epic quality that is captivating in scope and artistry.  Throughout the 3+ hour production, the history of the Lehman empire unfolds in a series of short scenes that rapidly chronicles the company’s humble beginnings in 1834 Montgomery, Alabama to its eventual demise in 2008.

The show is not merely a highlight reel of connected vignettes.  The play is an intricately woven story that is thoroughly engrossing, performed by only three distinguished actors - Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester - portraying multiple characters within and outside the Lehman family.

The timeline of the play follows Henry Lehman, a recent immigrant from Bavaria in 1844, settling in the Alabama capital.  Soon joined by brothers Mayer and Emmanuel, the trio start off selling fabrics, moving to dry goods and then hitting it rich as the middle men between plantation owners looking to sell their cotton and industrialists seeking the raw material.

We follow their eventual move to New York City, the financial center of the fast-growing economy and their shift to banking.  Throughout the company’s continual growth and prosperity they are able to constantly evolve and transform the business when necessary, always seeming to succeed and survive even during such major upheavals as the Civil War and the Great Depression.

As the decades unfold, the founding brothers pass and younger members of the Lehman family take charge of what becomes an investment house juggernaut, expanding and merging until the company’s collapse in 2008.

Playwright Stefano Massini and, in turn, adapter Ben Powers, has synthesized the essence of the Lehman’s sprawling story to construct a theatrical production that is never ponderous, full of emotional highs and lows and rich in details.  Massini is able to intelligibly break down the machinations of a constantly morphing business and expose the arrogance and vanity that drives men in power to unthinkable heights.  Acts I and II are riveting, but the playwright falters slightly in Act III, which becomes burdened with business related jargon and less dramatic momentum.

The three seasoned actors, to put it bluntly, are mesmerizing.  Simon Russell Beale as Henry; Adam Godley as Mayer; and Adrian Lester as Emanuel provide an acting clinic whether they are swiftly narrating segments of the show, embodying the play’s central roles, or breathing life into a disparate number of male and female characters, young and old. They have a driven, devil-may-care manner, which excites and entertains.

Director Sam Mendes takes the multi-generational exploration of the Lehman dynasty and shapes it into a compelling theatrical presentation.  The pacing is brisk, but not tiresomely.  He pushes his actors into giving first-rate, inspired performances.  Act I and II are brilliantly executed.  Only in Act III does Mendes slightly falter as there is a less cohesive and coherent structure to the show’s conclusion.  Still, the director deserves kudos for guiding what could have been a staggering behemoth of a play into probably the dramatic event of the season.

Scenic designer Es Devlin has constructed an enormous glass and metal enclosed office suite (probably corner office) separated into a number of multi-functioning rooms that are sparingly adorned. A table, a chair, cardboard boxes and other minimal set pieces are enough to spur the audience’s imagination.  The spinning set rotates into a new position when a scene changes or a significant life event occurs.

In a sense, The Lehman Trilogy has a cinematic scope.  Composer Nick Powell has crafted a vibrant musical soundtrack to accompany the performance, which is superbly rendered by Music Director Candida Caldicot on an upright piano, down front in the orchestra section of the theater.

The Lehman Trilogy, on Broadway only through January 2, 2022.  Don’t miss it.

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