The Incredible Shrinking Epic
The Lehman Trilogy has shrunk since I last saw it at the Park Avenue Armory, in April 2019. Or maybe the world has grown bigger. The show is just as long as ever—three and a half hours—and all its theatrical virtues, the wonderful acting, setting and staging, are intact and still thrilling. But all the momentous events of the past two and a half years—the global pandemic, the violent election, the seismic racial reckoning—have seriously changed the environmental canvas on which plays spread out, and this one just doesn’t have the same grandeur as before.
In 2019 The Lehman Trilogy swept me along handily in its grand, panoramic scope. I readily accepted it, with some caveats, as an epic story of American self-invention, bold ambition, shrewdly seized opportunity, and tragic downfall.
Opening with a janitor cleaning up the Lehman Brothers office after the company’s shattering 2008 bankruptcy, the play flashed back to nervous Bavarian-Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman stepping off the boat in New York in 1844, and then launched into a 164-year-long tale explaining how he, his brothers and their progeny transformed a modest fabric shop in Alabama into a lucrative cotton merchandising business and eventually one of the largest investment banks in the U.S.
The story struck me as iconic—pluck, energy and savvy conjuring something out of nothing, a trusty American myth pointedly retold through the lives of simple, decent men with rather straightforward capitalist ambitions and a nicely convenient ability to ignore snobbish exclusion. Even the play’s rushed Act 3 coda about the 2008 business collapse—treated as an avoidable tragedy about greed and moral laxity after the family relinquished control—carried me easily along on its tide of emotion.
I loved the show’s theatrical ingenuity too. Three world-class actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles (now replaced by Adrian Lester)—played 70-odd characters while moving about an endlessly transformable rotating glass-cube, blending concise poetic dialogue with direct audience address, writing on the walls with markers, and manipulating file boxes to represent benches, counters, stairways and much more. Upstage massive, morphing projections of roiling oceans, blowing cotton fields, and twinkling cityscapes stunned with their gentle grandeur. The veteran director Sam Mendes and set designer Es Devlin have never done better work.
The one major reservation critics had about the play in 2019 I shared: it all but avoided the role slavery played in generating the Lehmans’s gargantuan wealth. Ben Power (who adapted the play from Stefano Massini’s Italian original) made script changes to address this issue in 2021 and I was curious to hear them. They amount, alas, to a smattering of new, neutrally factual references plus the following lines addressed to Henry’s brother Mayer, which are uniquely harsh:
Surely you knew it could not last, Mr Mayer?
Everything that was built here
was built on a crime.
The roots run so deep you cannot see them
but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.
It had to end this way.
This is a worthy remark that smacks of sincere regret. But it barely scratches the surface of the critique this family’s cotton-based fortune deserves. Nor does the addition of Adrian Lester, a Black Briton, to the cast help at all. Like Beale and Godley, Lester plays so many different roles with power, precision, and grace that there’s no pointed social critique to his appearance.
My disappointment in this Broadway remount isn’t about the slavery issue, though. It has to do with the broader matter of what the Lehmans represent. I find it hard, on second viewing, to accept this family’s string of scions—four-generations of them—as satisfying iconic Americans, which the play clearly intends. Every one of them dedicates his privileged life to the single-minded pursuit of business opportunity and profit. In the early 20th century, Bobby Lehman is presented as a possible exception, displaying a somewhat wider range of interests.
A young man of twenty!
a lover of horses and of drawing,
Bobby enrolled at Yale!
and immediately joined the most exclusive societies.
He played polo with the heirs to noble families
and spent his vacations in Europe.
He wrote home about the modern paintings
he acquired for the family collection:
Within minutes of this, though, Bobby too is folded into the warm embrace of perpetual acquisition, his broad cultural interests redirected toward cultural profits for good (“It’s time to bet on radio, moving pictures, theater. On entertainment”)—to the enormous relief of his father Philip. No other heir complicates the picture further.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the Lehman family really is congenitally narrow in this way and, if so, shouldn’t a play featuring them offer some vantage point or platform for critique so we can put that in perspective? This play amounts to a paean.
A friend of mine told me she found The Lehman Trilogy anti-Semitic because of its belabored insistence on the Jewish family’s greed and grasping. I’m usually sensitive to that dog whistle and didn’t hear it here. But I do feel that the Lehmans in the drama have too limited a human profile to carry the mantle of the American national character. A 90-minute play about narrow people who do noteworthy things can be amusing and interesting. Protagonists occupying us for three-and-a-half hours have to contain multitudes.
That’s the way I feel now, at any rate, as all of us are coming out of hibernation and rethinking what it means to be a family members, professionals, artists. Americans. The bar is higher now.
Photo: Juliana Cervantes
By Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power
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