In 2012, Stefano Massini’s drama of three German-Jewish brothers from rural Bavaria and the rise and fall of the financial empire they built in America was heard for the first time on an Italian radio station. Massini had conceived his vast triptych as a radio play, but like the careers of his subjects — the Midas-like Lehman brothers — the piece seemed picked out by fate, marked for more, bigger, shinier things. In the next five years The Lehman Trilogy was translated into 11 languages and performed all over Europe, and last year, an English adaptation by Ben Power, directed by Sam Mendes, made its splashy debut at London’s National Theatre to a ticker tape of rapturous reviews. In English, the play has gone from five hours to roughly three and a half, and Power himself — in a program note on the show’s current visit to the Park Avenue Armory — calls his adaptation “only one possible route through the vast reaches of the original … created specifically for this production and in collaboration with this cast and creative team.” Mendes told Playbill that this version of the piece “was developed over three years without the constraint of a schedule, or even a destination — I was allowed time to find its form, and to build a wonderful team with which to make it.”
A dream process for a play that frames itself as a story of the American dream, its dizzying heights and its rapacious calamities. The results of that process are a strange, sleek beast: massive and dazzling on the outside, and in plenty of ways filled with virtuosity and vitality by a core of brilliant actors and top-of-their-game designers, all given the time and space to experiment, to build a world brick by brick with their ingenious director. But something is missing. The beast, for all its scale and artistry, is an automaton. It lacks a conscience. It aspires to exhilarating complexities — Power describes it in the language of ancient epic and of religion, calling it “Homeric” and a “hubristic tragedy” and comparing it to Jewish scripture — but it maintains a whimsical detachment of tone and, for all its scope, an insularity of focus that strip the play of any vital sense of why. Why this story? What do its tellers want to say about the Lehmans and their legacy, about the ravening, decadent, seemingly unstoppable Western capitalism they symbolize? What are we all doing here, in this temple of opulence that is the Armory, where the seat I sat in costs $425? What are we doing apart from listening to a good yarn, elegantly constructed and ensconced in a stunning set? A story like this in a setting like this fairly bristles with the opportunity for subversion, but The Lehman Trilogy doesn’t aim to ambush or even to unsettle us. It is content to entertain.
And it does. The superb designer Es Devlin has constructed a gleaming modernist playground for the show’s three marvelous actors: Sitting on a vast black ground wrapped around by a huge cyclorama is a glass box, divided into quadrants, with slick, bland monochrome furnishings — a single floor of a corporate skyscraper, floating in space. As the play begins, a janitor (Ravi Aujla) shuffles gray banker’s boxes around and listens to news of the impending crash of Lehman Brothers on a portable radio. It’s September 2008. But soon, as Simon Russell Beale steps onto the stage, it will be 1844. Beale plays Hayum Lehmann, the oldest son of a Bavarian cattle merchant, on his way across the Atlantic, a single black traveling case in hand. “Lehmann” will soon lose its second n and its German lilt, and Hayum will become Henry, just as Henry’s brother Mendel will become Emanuel Lehman (Ben Miles) when he arrives in 1847. “Here in America,” reflects Emanuel, “everything changes, even your name.” The youngest brother, Mayer (Adam Godley, who looks like he stepped out of another time, possibly as a descendent of Abraham Lincoln or Ichabod Crane), shows up in 1850, and the three set about building a business of buying and reselling raw cotton in Montgomery, Alabama.
And right away, there’s something in the air that’s not being addressed. The Lehmans are profiting, expanding, essentially inventing the concept of “middlemen” as they flip cotton from dozens of plantations to the wealthy men who process it in Northern mills. It’s only a matter of years before this trade in goods becomes trade in pure money, in value and the abstract signifiers of wealth, in, as the show puts it, “a long line of zeroes.” The brothers’ early professional history breaks down the myth of a righteous North and a wicked South, revealing the way in which the octopus tentacles of business stretched the products of slavery and the culpability for it across the entire nation — but there’s no reflection on this ugly reality in the performance, no visceral sense of a world outside of the Lehmans. We zip along with the brothers, invested (or at least encouraged to be so) in their struggles and their successes, heedless (or at least, not discouraged to be so) of the thousands of souls who are suffering outside of or directly because of their ascent. The play itself is like Devlin’s glass box: pristine and self-contained, largely unconcerned with the real meat of what goes on at the base of the skyscraper. Only once during the production does Miles step out of the box and down onto the stage, and it feels like a glitch, because the story never really goes outside.
But because of Beale, Miles, and Godley — along with Mendes’s delightfully inventive use of the stage world — it remains, on a theatrical level, a story that whisks us along, that enchants us aesthetically despite its uncanny moral detachment. All three actors are magicians, conjuring up multiple generations of the Lehman family and a host of supporting characters, and dancing their way through Power’s crisply poetic translation with the mischievous grace of circus performers. The play is an epic feat of narration, all the actions of the brothers delivered to us in the third person rather than embodied with heavy psychological realism. It’s all adroit construction and cool playfulness, unburnt by the messy heat of full character. And yet it can be moving, especially in the actors’ recurring recitations of the Kaddish when members of the family pass away. (Emanuel and Mayer sit shiva for a full week when Henry dies of yellow fever in 1855; when Emanuel’s son Philip, in his time emperor of the Lehman dynasty, dies in 1947, the company designates three whole minutes to his mourning.) Beale is sly, erudite, and twinkle-eyed. He gives Philip Lehman, who cooly strategizes every facet of his life in his journal, a brisk ruthlessness that nevertheless succeeds as comedy, while the wolfish Miles gives his characters brawny oomph and bravura (Emanuel was the family’s “arm” while Henry was its “head”). Meanwhile Godley — emminently watchable in all his lanky, half-smiling offbeat-ness — is the kind of actor who will never, ever be out of work as long as there are wizarding schools and old curiosity shops to populate. He’s more interesting than a whole boatload full of beautiful, Hollywood-bound MFA grads, and the creepy, disintegrating dance that he does as Philip’s son Bobbie Lehman — to mark the company’s precipitous expansion on its way to bursting — is perhaps the production’s only moment of effective, truly chilling commentary.
There’s also great pleasure to be found in the way that, inside that glitzy, high-tech box, Mendes still works with inspired theatrical simplicity. The brothers build everything they need out of those banker’s boxes, that corporate furniture, writing on the glass walls that surround them with dry-erase pens to mark the progress of their journey. They never change costume, clothed throughout by Katrina Lindsay in the grave, impeccable silhouettes of the mid-1800s and thus always connected to their roots. A pianist (Candida Caldicot) accompanies their tale, providing an original score by Nick Powell that hearkens back to the play’s radio days — close your eyes, and the actors and playful, evocative piano would still carry you along.
It’s all technically intoxicating — and persistently without a point of view. If anything, Massini and Power allow themselves to stray into a romanticism that would simply never fly from an open-eyed contemporary American playwright. Hopeful, freighted images of the brothers “dreaming of America” open, close, and punctuate the play: I don’t know how these pictures play in Europe, but it seems to me they’ve had a rough crossing. What can we make — here, now — of a play that reflects, without irony, that in the Civil War “America lost what little innocence it had left” and that after that war, everyone was “free”? How can we respond when Bobbie Lehman quotes Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, again without any hint of writerly stance? In The Lehman Trilogy, every generation of the family is plagued by dreams — of stacks of coins wobbling as they get higher, of roofs of houses caving in, of businessmen quarreling in different languages as they stack their briefcases precariously in a modern Tower of Babel. It’s not exactly subtle, and that’s okay — a fable doesn’t require subtlety. But the play leaves the implications of these dreams as unexamined as their dreamers do, so we get an image of collapse without an investigation of it. And it doesn’t help that the ultimate catastrophic fall of Lehman Brothers takes up, at most, a rushed 20 minutes at the end of the play after a steady, basically cheerful process of ascension, leaving us with little feeling of menace or corruption, or even the essential tragic sensations of hubris, pity, and fear.
There’s something Candide-like about The Lehman Trilogy: It’s a hero’s progress, a parable, and it prizes lightness and wit. But Voltaire had an unmistakable opinion about his questionable hero, a moral center that expressed itself in sparkling irony. Massini, by way of Power, seemingly has no judgment to pass upon his insatiable little pilgrims, climbing the golden ladder in their best of all possible worlds. Or perhaps it’s not a matter of judgment — which can easily turn into self-righteousness and crush a play to death — but of curiosity. While The Lehman Trilogy is frequently captivating as an act of telling, it doesn’t seem to be doing much asking, or to be encouraging us to do much asking either.
The Lehman Trilogy is at the Park Avenue Armory through April 20.