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Highly involving ‘Lehman Trilogy,’ with just 3 actors, traces company’s slow rise and rapid crash

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In telling the story of the Lehman family from the 1848 arrival in the United States of the first of three immigrant brothers to the failure of their eponymous company in 2008, “The Lehman Trilogy” takes on an epic, sweeping scope. With three actors.

Covering territory usually more associated with documentaries, the actors both narrate a lot of the events and portray dozens of characters, starting with the three brothers Henry (Mitchell J. Fain), Emanuel (Anish Jethmalani), and Mayer (Joey Slotnick), and then expanding to portray dozens of their wives, children, rabbis, customers, business partners, and more.

Based originally on an Italian novel written in verse by Stefano Massini, then adapted first by Massini and then by a Brit, Ben Power, “The Lehman Trilogy” is long — a bit over three hours, in three acts — but highly involving, verbally poetic and physically theatrical.

Although produced in partnership with Broadway in Chicago, this is not a tour of the London production, brought to New York and directed by Sam Mendes. This is a homegrown staging from Timeline Theatre, which specializes in plays conveying or contemplating history. Not surprisingly then, the biggest impression the show makes is how well it captures big stories by chronicling a series of smaller episodes.

It’s the story of capitalism, of how ingenuity and adaptability enabled stunning success. Henry Lehman opened a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama, which morphed into a retailer of equipment to serve local plantations, then into a cotton merchant, then a bank, then brokerage and market-maker. That trajectory tracks with an America that morphed from manufacturing goods to producing complex financial instruments.

It’s the story of American history itself, taking us through seminal events such as the Civil War and the Great Depression, told here from the highly specific perspective of a business attempting to survive the crises. (The non-American origin of this work shows here, leaving out perspectives that I think an American author would be sure to acknowledge more forcefully.)

It’s the story of immigration and assimilation and the gradual trailing away of long-lasting and, in this case, Jewish traditions. 

It’s the story of fathers and sons and the passing of power, as well as the growth of public companies where family leadership gave way to shareholder control. By the time Lehman Brothers fails, it had been nearly 40 years since a Lehman had been at the helm.

“The Lehman Trilogy” is something of a blank slate for directors and performers — the choices are endless. Massini, who won the best play Tony Award for his writing, brings in metaphor after metaphor: Wall Street as a high-wire act or a dance performance, recession as a rainstorm, business strategy as a game of three-card monte. Given the small ensemble, this is a piece that could be produced in an intimate space, but given its scope, it can absorb enlargement and certainly thrives on imagination. 

This production, directed by Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling, seems torn between going big and going small. Although the stage itself is spacious, filled by set designer Collette Pollard with bankers boxes and abandoned office furniture and equipment, Bowling and Stalling stage the playing primarily in a limited portion, making use of a center runway or the boxes to change levels. There are moments when we anticipate a big visual payoff that doesn’t come. I left without any visual image seared into memory.

Part of the problem is that the show seems to over-invest in the ending. Even though the play spends little time on the company’s collapse, the set represents the detritus of that event. The idea is that the proceedings can be considered a type of mournful remembrance, but that tone becomes one-note and prevents us from fully experiencing the joyful rushes along the way.

All that said, the acting is outstanding and the performances lift this to a very high level and seem to still be developing. These three actors are all quite different, ranging from broader to more subtle. Mitchell Fain is the clear standout, delineating his characters with convincing accents and physical changes. Joey Slotnick possesses an extraordinary ability to communicate big effects through small facial tweaks.

And Anish Jethmalani — the type of actor who brings characters toward him rather than the other way around — embodies his characters using refined nuances. His most effective moments involve his portrayal of Herbert Lehman, too abrasive for leadership of the company but just right for a different profession.

He became a successful politician. But that’s another story.



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