The In-Person Experience: Broadway’s The Lehman Trilogy
A newscaster set it all up, we are told, the collapse, that is, as they all wait for a call that would change the world as they know it. Both at the beginning and at the end of this epic rotation. A janitor (Aaron Krohn) sweeps through, but the financial mess remains, as this majestic piece of theatre lands itself extremely solidly on Broadway after a celebrated run at London’s National Theatre and the West End. Laying out the ending that we all know about right at the landing, The Leyman Trilogy sets its baggage forth, bringing this massive story to our shore, just like the day when a purposeful Henry Lehman arrived in America so many years ago. It’s the dream of America in reverse, as the engrossing narrative style storytelling takes us back to the end of a forty-five-day crossing that started this whole thing. He left his homeland with an idea of America, we are told, in 1844, and now the Lehman name is stamped before him, whether he wanted it or not. He’s that man now, thanks to American Immigration, and the new world is his hard-working, complicated oyster.
It’s a large canvas to paint, this trilogy, weaving together nearly two centuries of detailed family history and the quintessential composite of western capitalism at its finest. It relishes the big ideas with expansive thought-provoking brush strokes, while never failing to find the emotional personal core in the finer pointillist dots of black and white, for the most part of three hours and fifteen minutes. The three celebrated actors, namely the two magnificent original company members Simon Russell Beale (Broadway’s Jumpers; Donmar/BAM’s Uncle Vanya) and Adam Godley (Broadway/RTC’s Anything Goes; NT’s The Pillowman), with the phenomenal Adrian Lester (Donmar’s Company; NT’s Othello) joining the cast for his Broadway debut, are all luminous, which hardly even comes close to encapsulating the talented embodiments what we bear witness to. They each, in turn, radiate seemingly effortless restructurings of themselves as this epic piece of theatre writing, by Stefano Massini (Dizionario inesistente (2018) – The Book of Nonexistent Words, trans. Richard Dixon), adapted by Ben Power (an adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Husbands & Sons), gallops forward, demanding more and more of them and us as it climbs higher and higher into the stratosphere.
The three actors (each one deserving the Tony nomination that they most likely will, and should receive) portray all the complicated and dynamic characters that drive this combative structure into our present, delivering this painting and this construction with expertise gusto. It’s a tremendous gift given, as we watch these three find meaning in every movement, with special thanks to movement coach, Polly Bennett (“The Crown“). They discover detailed dynamics in every fiber presented, cloaked in garments beautifully designed by Katrina Lindsay (Broadway’s Harry Potter…), all most powerfully embodied inside the magnificent glass sectioned cube that is forever in rotation. Forcibly designed by Es Devlin (Memory Palace), with a strong visual assist by video designer Luke Halls (Broadway’s West Side Story) and lighting designer Jon Clark (West End/Broadway’s Betrayal), the monumental cubed structure turns time forward, year by year, minute by minute, giving us everything we need to bring these “Three Brothers“, including all the “Fathers and Sons“, up to “The Immortal” ending that we all know is coming. Without ever (pretty much) losing the intensity of connection within the swirling rotation of the years passing. We are in it completely, solidly, for the most part, connected to the historical names written on those glass walls and feeling the weight of what is being presented. It’s an awe-inspiring phenomenon, this team of creatives, including all the actors involved (notice the long list of understudies) that were tasked with bringing this alive. All are needed, I’m sure, to pull this off. It elevates to heights unimaginable, majestic in scale, yet utterly personable and intimate when required.
As directed by Sam Mendes (West End/Broadway’s The Ferryman) with an impeccable ability to understand the weight of history, both personal and globally, The Lehman Trilogy rarely falters. The Lehman Brothers; Henry (Beale), Mayer (Godley), and Emmanuel (Lester) arrived on these shores a decade before the Civil War with nothing but a suitcase, and a desire to succeed. They each had their role to play within that brotherly trilogy. They used their individual skills to drive themselves up in the world, while also building a country, financing its growth, and funding its greed. A collapse wasn’t imminent, but we all know that it is coming. The energy builds from within, edged forward, generation by generation, by simple musical structuring worthy of a standing ovation all of its own for its emotional entanglement, courtesy of the glorious piano playing by musical director Candida Caldicot (West End’s Queen Anne), coaxed along by composer/sound designer Nick Powell (Bridge Theatre’s Julius Caesar) and co-sound designer Dominic Bilkey (NT’s Jane Eyre). The circular emotional crescendos wouldn’t have been as achingly intense without those musical notes underneath it.
The Lehman Trilogy, one of the best new plays seen on Broadway for a while, while based on Massini’s award-winning novel, Qualcosa sui Lehman, does stumble a tad in the end as the rotation of characters starts losing the connection to the actual Lehmans. It’s almost as if, when the last Lehman falls, the play doesn’t know how to wrap this up emotionally. It knows the ending, just like we all do, but how, without a descendent to revolve around, do we bring this master class to the heightened emotional conclusion it deserves. That piece of this historical puzzle remains elusive, but not enough to stall one of the grandest triumphs of the Broadway season. The tall tale rises up solidly on the shoulders of the cast and crew, high up to the heavens, expanding on the challenges given while finding uniqueness in every voice or turn of the wheel. Surrounded by boxes upon boxes of papers and personality, it’s hard to imagine what could capsize this magnificent voyage.