I was recently reflecting on how lucky we are in Los Angeles, not only to be blessed by our mild weather and beautiful beaches, but also with the highest caliber of art in the world. Currently at Ahmanson Theatre we have such an occasion with a brilliant production of The Lehman Trilogy, direct from Broadway with two of three original cast members. Ben Power adapts this staggering 3-hour, three-act saga from Italian playwright Stefano Massini’s play about Bavarian immigrant brothers staking their claim to the American dream eventually leading to their company’s role in the great financial meltdown of 2008.
One may understandably feel, “why should I care about the story of a predatory financial institution that helped bring our world economy to the brink?” Not only is the story fascinating but the theatricality of this show is breathtaking. Does it humanize the founding brothers? Yes, but I think that serves the purpose of illuminating the insidious nature of financial institutions that grow “too big to fail”. And really, it’s not the story of the great recession, but rather a 164 year saga of one family’s rise in American capitalism.
Sam Mendes flawlessly directs with razor sharp precision and the spectacle is told on a rotating Es Devlin set which is a modern cube that goes from tiny shop to a giant skyscraper office. Luke Halls’ video design takes us from the cotton fields of Alabama to the Hudson River and inside the dreams of the protagonists all set to Nick Powell’s music played hauntingly by Rebekah Bruce (opening night) on the piano at the foot of the stage.
Original cast members Simon Russell Beale and Adam Godley are joined by Howard W. Overshown as the three Lehman brothers who also play multiple characters with no costume changes but rather the sheer force of their physicality and virtuosity. The dense dialogue that moves at a breakneck pace coupled with the superlative performances of these three men makes this utterly captivating. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
The play begins in 1844 with Henry Lehman disembarking in America dreaming of a new life of opportunity. He is soon followed by his two brothers, Emanuel and Mayer and together they establish their first Lehman venture as sellers of suits and fabric in the deep south. The first act traces the rise from a small retail shop to becoming buyers and sellers of cotton grown on plantations, picked by slaves, and sold to buyers in New York. Soon they are amassing a fortune and Emanuel sets up a branch in New York. After the Civil War, the brothers reinvent themselves into a bank, helping to re-build, investing in more and more lucrative commodities and essentially getting into the “business of money”.
Beale plays oldest brother Henry, “who is never wrong”, with authority and morphs with ease into a Southern politician, a seductive divorcée and most impressively, Phillip, brother Emanuel’s whip-smart son who takes the company to the next level. The actors also act as narrators of the story and it is told in a presentational style. Adam Godley, who initially plays the softer, peacemaker brother, Mayer, is simply astounding as grandson Robert, Phillip’s son who brings his Yale education and desire for risk and competition to bear. Overshown is riveting as the hot-tempered and ambitious Emanuel.
Faustian bargains are made along the way, whether profiting off both slavery and its aftermath, to emerging unscathed post depression and eventually taking untold risks to become more and more competitive and powerful. It’s a dizzying story, painful and exquisitely told.
The Lehman Trilogy runs through April 10 at Ahmanson Theatre, located at 135 N. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. Tickets $35 – $225. Tickets and information (213) 972-4400 or visit CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes, including two 15-minute intermissions. Check website for current Covid protocol.