Should theatergoers – Jewish and non-Jewish – see “The Lehman Trilogy” as a cautionary drama about the dark side of the American dream? Has playwright Stefano Massini (a Jew who speaks Hebrew) turned the recurring entry of the Kaddish into a metaphor for mourning the Lehman family’s increasing assimilation over generations?
No matter where audience members stand – and this critic sees both elements in this far-ranging 2020 Tony Award winner – the riveting Huntington staging (the first American production since its Broadway run) should have all theatergoers giving timely attention not only to the rise and fall of the Lehmans but also to the nature and responsibilities of financial success.
“The Lehman Trilogy” is a three-act, nearly three-and-one-half-hour play (adapted by Ben Powers from Massini’s original five-hour work, which debuted in Italy in 2015). The story stretches from Montgomery, Alabama, in 1844 to the investment bank’s bankruptcy in New York City in 2008. It begins with the migration of Ashkenazic German Jew Henry (Heyum) Lehman from Bavaria to Montgomery, where he establishes a dry goods store. Brothers Emanuel and Mayer eventually join him and go heavily into the cotton trade. Strategist Henry is seen as the head with emotional Emanuel the arm and Mayer – fondly called “Potato” – the peace-making middle man.
The fairly religious siblings pray before work and rest on the Sabbath. At moments of good fortune, they regularly say “Baruch Ha-Shem” (“Blessed is God”). When Henry dies in 1855, Emanuel and Mayer sit Shiva for the traditional seven days. Emanuel’s son Philip attends Hebrew school, and the brothers refer to the Talmud. The pioneering Lehmans have vivid images of Sukkot and Shavuot.
Did the early Lehmans face antisemitism in their years in the South? The play seems to avoid this question (although being able to take off the Sabbath can be seen as a positive sign). More conspicuous is the lack of a real confrontation with the slavery behind the production of the cotton. To Huntington Theatre’s credit, a part of the playbill titled “The Lehman Legacy: History in Context” candidly notes that both Henry and Mayer were slave owners.
After plantation fires and the end of the Civil War, the family’s business interests and investments gradually expand to include oil and coal – and later, to electricity, railroads and even planes. Generation by generation, the Lehmans become more assimilated. Philip observes, “Our flour is money.” Shiva is shortened to three days for the passing of Mayer (1897). During the tenure of Philip’s son Robert (Billie), comic books and Hollywood become an additional focus. A mourning period for Philip lasts all of three minutes (1947).Complementing the Kaddish motif is Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s inspired projection of the entire text of the prayer in the early going and later on its side when the family’s assimilation is more pronounced.
Thanks to Carey Perloff’s smart pacing and taut direction, the growing assimilation and financial rise and fall of the family are sharply dramatized. Three actors – gifted Steven Skybell (acclaimed for his Tevye in a recent off-Broadway Yiddish staging of “Fiddler on the Roof”), Joshua David Robinson and Firdous Bamji – vividly portray dozens of characters including successors at Lehman Brothers down to the company’s last chairman and CEO, Richard S. (Dick) Fuld, Jr. Theatergoers will do well to consult the playbill’s very informative Lehman Family Tree.
Skybell captures Henry’s immigrant enthusiasm and Philip’s financial savvy and even convinces as Ruth Lamar, Robert’s outspoken wife. Robinson catches Emanuel’s remarkable drive and the strong independent-mindedness of Mayer’s son Herbert (who eventually became the governor of New York). Bamji demonstrates all of Mayer’s mediating skills as well as Robert Lehman’s fascination with the arts. In a striking Hebrew school lesson about the Ten Plagues, Bamji quickly switches voices for the students identifying the first nine – with Robinson’s Herbert pointedly asking the rabbi why God did not kill the Pharaoh rather than the first-born males.
Versatile musician Joe LaRocca orchestrates the ups and downs of the Lehmans on clarinet, sax and flute. In the early going, clarinet accompaniment evokes Henry’s spirit of adventure. Sara Brown’s ingenious box-dominated scenic design complements the shifting priorities of the Lehmans. Dede Aylte’s costumes – black cutaways and less formal wear for the likes of Robert – parallel the family’s growing secularism and assimilation. Robert Wierzel’s lighting for Robert’s tenure matches his interest in the arts.
The rise and fall of the Lehmans – a family repeatedly governed by hubris as much as by spirit and accomplishment – is clearly a story with tragic dimension. Massini’s ambitious drama could do more to confront the place of slavery in the family’s ascent. Even so, the play’s absorbing three acts form a haunting warning about the perils of assimilation and financial over-reaching.
Huntington Theatre’s inspired staging makes “The Lehman Trilogy” an essential investment for all theatergoers. Θ
“The Lehman Trilogy” runs through July 23 at the Huntington Theatre.