Well, that was unexpected.
Yesterday, we went to go see The Lehman Trilogy at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Unlike the musicals we see (where I generally know the music and perhaps the plot ahead of time), I knew nothing about this show other than the awards it had won. I was expecting, perhaps, a conventional play that focused heavily of the fall of Lehman Brothers: that is, focusing on the circumstances that led to the fall. I thought it might be similar to Enron, the play that told the downfall of Enron. It wasn’t.
I also expected, perhaps because it is the current trend in the theatre, a play that was pretty realistic in its staging and presentation. Conventional sets, multiple locations, good old flying scenery.
Instead, I got a play that I wanted to recommend to my synagogue’s live theatre group; a play that was very Jewish in content. I got a play that had a single modernistic advanced office set, with the basic props being tables, (transparent) white boards, and loads of moving boxes. I got three actors portraying a multitude of characters.
This wasn’t at all what I expected. Yet I was engrossed in the story from the minute that it started, and the 3 hour 20 minute running time (3 acts, 2 15-minute intermissions) just flew by.
The Lehman Trilogy, with story by Stefano Massini adapted by Ben Power, tells the story of the Lehman Brothers Investment Bank, from the origin to the fall. The first act (“Three Brothers”) focuses on the first going into the second generation, beginning with the establishing of first a fabric store (and then a cotton trading concern) by three brothers in Montgomery Alabama: Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), Emanuel Lehman (Howard W. Overshown), and Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley). The family emigrated from Bavaria to find a better world before the Civil War — a common path for Jews at the time (my family was similar, coming from Eastern Europe to Tennessee). Throughout this act, the Judaism was emphasized, and how it dictated their behaviors, how they celebrated, how the cycle the governed their lives was Jewish, and how they sat Shiva and closed their business for a week when one of the brothers died. This act also shows the origins of the financial firm, moving from selling cotton goods to selling the raw cotton from the south to the north, and finding profit in being the middleman. This continued as the family started the move to New York, and the branching into other commodities such as coffee. It was also when we saw the first foreys into Lehman Brothers being a bank.
The second act (“Fathers and Sons”) focuses on the next generation, where we get to meet Emanuel’s son Philip Lehman and Mayer’s son, Herbert Lehman. We get a deep exploration of the relationship of each son with their father, and in turn we get introduced to the next generation, Robert “Bobbie” Lehman, Philip’s son. We see the commodity traders start to broaden the investment portfolio, and become more of an investment bank. We also see them move further from Judaism — it is explicitly noted they move into Reform (mistakenly called “Reformed” — tsk, tsk), and mourning periods become shorter. The emphasis is that this is the American generation, bringing American values and American greed. The move away from investments that can be seen and touched and traded becomes increasingly foreign to the older generations. Values are lost.\
The last act (“The Immortal”) focuses on the last generation of Lehman to run the bank, Bobbie Lehman. It also focuses on how times were changing in the 1950s and 1960s, and how increasingly modern ideas were reshaping banking. This included an upstart trading division run by Lewis Glucksman, a new Presidency under Pete Peterson, and the successor, Richard Fuld. It is in this act we see the loss of the family from the leadership, and perhaps the loss of the family values and the Jewish values. But the actual end comes very abruptly with only a few minutes focusing on how the company was divided up, and then went bankrupt. It doesn’t provide a lot of understanding of the fall, other than the notion that things went off the rails when the family left.
The storytelling was done in an interesting way. The actors, in addition to performing a multitude of characters, also served to narrate the story. There’s a lot of exposition in this one, folks. This is very much a “tell you the story”, vs “show you the story” form of play. The set was simple: a modern office, desks, lamps, loads of moving boxes that were stacked and restacked to form things, and clear Plexiglas walls used as whiteboards. It was effective, although the ceiling of the set limited sightlines from the balcony seats (where we were).
The performances themselves were very strong. Beale, Godley, and Overshown captured all their different characters well, and really brought acting to the fore in how one actor can be multiple people.
So what is the verdict? First, this show is definitely worth seeing. The story is engrossing, and you learn things about the Lehman family you probably never knew. The performances are strong and the staging is amazing. However, you do walk about wondering if the fall of the firm was ever adequately explained. But perhaps that’s the point: to stimulate that discussion, as opposed to whacking you over the head with a moral.
Rounding out the cast were: Aaron Krohn Janitor, Mayer Lehman Standby; Tony Carlin Henry Lehman Standby; R. J. Foster Emanuel Lehman Standby; and the individuals whose sole job is to be extras in the closing scene (I hope they have something fun to do while they are waiting): EJ Assi, Mark Jacob Chaitin, Lee Cohen, Sumeet Dang, Sabah El-Amin, Bo Foxworth, John Massey, Jalon Matthews, Elaine Rivkin, Scott Roberts, Kyla Schoer, Sean Smith, Heather L. Tyler, and Tom Waters.
The production was directed by Sam Mendes Director assisted by Zoé Ford Burnett Associate Director and Rory McGregor Assistant Director. Movement was coordinated by Polly Bennett. The design team was Es Devlin Scenic Design; Katrina Lindsay Costume Design; Luke Halls Video Design; Jon Clark Lighting Design; Nick Powell Composer and Sound Design; Dominic Bilkey Co Sound Design; and Candida Caldicot Music Director. I’ve already commented on the scenic design; I’ll note additionally that a number of design elements were not visible from the balcony due to the “ceiling” of the office. There’s no need for that ceiling dramatically; it is a flaw of the scenic design. I also want to note the sound design: there were excellent sound effects throughout the show. Rounding out the production team: Wendy Spon CDG Casting; Jim Carnahan CSA Casting; Aurora Productions Production Management; Jim Leaver UK Production Manager; David Lober Production Stage Manager; Cynthia Cahill Stage Manager; Danielle Ranno Stage Manager Megan Curren Associate General Manager; and Deirdre Murphy Company Manager. I always make a point of crediting the COVID Safety Team: Uriel Trepman Covid Safety Manager – The Lehman Trilogy; Niki Armato Facilities Asst./COVID Compliance Officer; and Nicki Heskin Temporary COVID Communications Manager.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member (modulo the COVID break). I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Actors Co-op (FB), 5 Star Theatricals (FB), Broadway in Hollywood (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB), and we have a membership at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB). We were subscribing at the Musical Theatre Guild (FB) prior to COVID; they have not yet resumed productions. We have also been subscribers at the Soraya/VPAC (FB), although we are waiting a year before we pick that up again. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups. Note to publicists or producers reading this: here’s my policy on taking comp tickets. Bottom-Line: Only for things of nominal value, like Fringe.
For right now, we’re pretty much sticking with shows that come as part of our subscriptions or are of interest through our memberships. That may change later in 2022. As for the remainder of the first half of 2022: Next up in March Trayf at the Geffen Playhouse (with the TAS Live Theatre group). April brings Ann at The Pasadena Playhouse (FB), the Southern California Renaissance Faire; and Tootsie at Broadway in Hollywood (FB). May brings Hadestown at at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). June will see Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) and Pretty Woman at Broadway in Hollywood (FB), plus as much of the Hollywood Fringe Festival as we have the energy for.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, On Stage 411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget (although I know it is outdated and need to update it). Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country (again, I need to review this for the post-COVID theatre landscape)!