Money, the pop song says, changes everything, and like the magnificent Broadway play The Lehman Trilogy So splendidly it shows, it all means everythingFrom the most private personal circumstances to, if you have enough cash (or even the suggestion to do so), the great sweep of history.
And the Lehmans once had enough cash (fill in that statement with an exclamation point or question mark, and it works either way). Brothers Henry, Mayer and Emmanuel Lehman, Americanized names from the original German by American immigration guardians, arrive on these shores a decade before the Civil War with nothing that won’t fit in a suitcase. Their fortunes would help build a country, finance its achievements, finance its greatest sins, and bring the world to near collapse more than once.
Directed with astonishing grace and wit by Sam Mendes, Stefano Masinni’s play, adapted by Ben Power and based on Masinni’s novel, is perhaps the most effective display of imaginative theatrical storytelling since Angels in america landed on Broadway in 1993, a comparison that reminds me of the shared ambition, the breadth of style and substance, and the deep delight in inventiveness that transforms everything on stage into a riveting demonstration of the possibilities of the theater.
To start at the beginning: The National Theater production opening tonight at the Nederlander Theater begins with the arrival on stage of a lone figure, Henry Lehman, played by Simon Russell Beale, but more on the cast shortly, dressed in the familiar black garb of the 19th century Jewish immigrant. Henry is actually the second person on stage: In a very short prologue, a janitor in 2008 sweeps up the office trash that will remain in the wake of everything we are about to witness, everything that begins with arriving at Ellis Island. by Henry Lehman.
In a description that will oversimplify to an absurd degree, the set is a transparent cube, a square of glass that will serve as everything from a humble Alabama country store to the offices of a cloud-touching Wall Street giant. Cardboard archival boxes will be shuffled, stacked, knocked over, and re-stacked to create any number of structures and sets, and video projections (designed by Luke Halls) will place the action between cotton fields and skyscrapers, land and water, through the ages of slavery. wars, accidents and computers.
Henry arrives on Ellis Island alone, £ 10 less than when he began his 45-day sea voyage, and is already wiser on the world’s roads and third class than he could have earned in the Bavarian town of Rimpar, Germany. . In three years he opened a small dry goods store in Montgomery, Alabama, serving the poor, supervisors, anyone who needs cheap, durable, and durable clothing.
Before long, Henry is joined by younger brothers Emmanuel (Adrian Lester), the “arm” of Henry’s “head,” and Mayer (Adam Godley), the little brother mockingly nicknamed Spud because his face is as smooth as a peeled potato. Mayer, even he admits, serves mainly to separate the other two: “So that the arm does not crush the head and the head does not humiliate the arm. That is why he was sent to America … “
Mayer’s middleman position will take on unexpected value and importance and will lay a kind of symbolic foundation for the role this fledgling business will play in shaping a 20th century economy: This small businessman will practically invent the industry that will come to an end. be known as investment banking. In short, they will become intermediaries, intermediaries between manufacturers and sellers of goods.
How the brothers (and their offspring) accomplish that feat is told in three-and-a-half hours of fast-moving, moving from the blood-soaked years of the Old South, when the Lehmans went from selling cotton clothing to selling the cotton itself, to through their days of making their fortune as Reconstruction brokers, and through the fast-paced era of the early 20th century stock market, its downfall in 1929, the profits of World War II, and the transformation of selling as a practice in sell as concept, when marketing executives showed first to the Lehman family and then to the world that the most lucrative thing to sell is the very idea of selling. Or rather, the idea of buying, that the Lehmans and their companions will convince the world, is one and the same idea of living.
Sounds heavy, right? But the miracle of The Lehman Trilogy it is not only in its reach, but in the dizzying momentum of its storytelling. All three actors play not just the original siblings, but the crowds, familiar and not, that would follow throughout the decades. In a clever move that allows for both the story arc and the revelations of the most private thoughts, the story is largely told in the third person, which is why we hear Henry introduce himself like this:
“I had been dreaming of the United States. Son of a cattle dealer, a circumcised Jew, with a single piece of luggage, stood as still as a telegraph pole, at Pier No. 4 in New York Harbor. Thank God it had arrived. Baruch HaShem! Thank God he was gone. Baruch HaShem! Thank God he is now finally in America. Baruch HaShem! “
And this is how we are told of the start of the Civil War, as observed first by Mayer in Alabama and then by Emanuel in Manhattan:
Mayer: “The first cannon shot of the Civil War awakens Mayer Lehman in Montgomery. Your first thoughts are for your cotton warehouses. Open the window: Montgomery has gone mad. Crowds on the street celebrating: The cotton states claim their independence! “
Then Emanuel: “The first cannon shot of the Civil War awakens Emanuel Lehman in New York. Your first thoughts are for your buyers! He goes to the window: New York has gone crazy. People in the street celebrating: End Slavery Now: Constitution and Rights!“
And many decades later, this is how we meet a non-Lehman character, a stockbroker named Teddy whom we met, briefly, for the first and last time in October. November 24, 1929:
“What if everyone, instead of wanting other actions, just wants to get their money back? What if everyone stops believing? What I am going to do? Teddy locks himself in the bathroom. A bullet. A trigger. One shot. “
And so it goes, a fascinating character, one indelible performance after another, each claiming the most unforgettable of the play until the next one arrives. First Among Equals: Robert “Bobby” Lehman, Prince Hal of the saga, who begins his story as Yalie, art lover and freethinker, faces the challenge of the Depression and ultimately lays the foundation for disaster when he fell in love with the concept of selling anything in the 1960s.
Bobby, like Mayer, is portrayed by Godley: the actors remain disguised in their 19th-century garb, as if transporting ghosts and legacies from one era to another, and the character and actors are responsible for one of the most thrilling moments of the series. night, when the elderly Bobby, the last of the original brothers and desperate to stay young, dances the Twist as he describes the 1960s. He writhes and twists as his body grows decrepit, his voice a demonic croak. “Dance like crazy,” says Godley-as-Bobby without breaking stride. “He dances so hard that he does not notice when the ground rises to meet him. You don’t realize that the music has stopped. He doesn’t realize that the last Lehman died dancing the Twist. “
However, highlighting that scene seems unfair, since The Lehman Trilogy It’s a never-ending stream of these dazzling ones, and each one is flawlessly performed by the remarkable cast of actors, all but one, Lester, imported from the acclaimed London original production. Each actor builds his population of characters with a precision that makes every Lehman (and every non-Lehman who enters the world of Lehman) a fully etched and independent bundle of ambitions, fears, loyalties, and greed. This is acting like magic.
The cast is assisted, although assisted is too weak a word, better to say equaled, by a team of stage-working teachers at the top of their games, from Mendes, for whom Lehman marks an artistic peak, for sound designer and composer Nick Powell, who has written the magnificent piano score (expertly performed by pianist Candida Caldicot seated in the style of a silent movie between the audience and the stage). Jon Clark’s lighting design, Katrina Lindsay’s wardrobe (keep an eye out for those long black coats as they are ingeniously versatile over decades and genres), and Es Devlin’s iconic spinning cube set.
And a second mention deserves the video designer Halls, whose projections support the logistics of time and place while providing an artistic statement that one could easily imagine putting together their own exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Exciting is the word, as we see eerie visions of a lonely and adrift Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, or an incredibly rapid climb up the skyscrapers looming over the skyscrapers that haunt a Lehman’s sleepless nights. particularly terrified.
That terror, we know from the beginning, is well founded. At some point, all those cardboard boxes and monumental buildings and glass offices will collapse, figuratively, literally, and finally. Even the most learned experts in financial history will be stunned by how, exactly, Lehman’s fall comes to life, how the nothingness that Henry Lehman brought to America returns to reclaim the something that he and his brothers wanted to exist. Like those 19th century immigrants, Mendes, Massini, Power and their team of artists have conjured a world through imagination and knowledge, stacking the pieces box by box, layer by layer, into something magical. We can’t look away, dazzled by witchcraft.