Somewhere, there must exist a rulebook for aspiring playwrights that lay out all the orthodoxies and taboos that their creations must obey. The textbook would include the following hearsay:
You cannot write a play about Jews and money and expect to find an audience.
You cannot write a play involving love stories with only male actors.
You cannot write a play with only three actors if there are multiple characters to be betrayed in the play.
You cannot have adult actors pretending to be children, or worse babies.
For reasons of political correctness, you cannot have men playing the roles of women.
You cannot have a play in which the audience is already familiar not just with the outline but also with the broad outlines of the plot.
You cannot hope to compress a century and a half of social and economic history into an enjoyable evening of theater.
You cannot have characters “breaking the fourth wall” or addressing the audience directly in order to summarize plot developments.
And finally, the most sacred taboo of them all: if you want to send a message, call Western Union.
Stefano Massini, who wrote the breathtaking Lehman Trilogy, a National Theater production packing them into theaters in the West End, either never saw that rulebook or made a decision to ignore all of those ordinances when he wrote his brilliant play. After all, Massini has awfully good precedents in dramatic history for doing all of the above.
No less a playwright than William Shakespeare wrote about Jews and money in The Merchant of Venice. He had male actors playing the roles of females and somewhere in the canon, children. The tragedies of histories he wrote were often not original creations; audiences knew the stories but wanted to see what sort of fresh coat of paint Shakespeare might apply to them.
And as far as having just three actors on the stage? Well, for that we can go back to fifth-century Athens, where writers like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes would never have imagined using more than three actors, wearing various masks, to portray all of the roles in a given production.
So here we have the Lehman Trilogy, breaking every rule of the modern stage but following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks to create a modern masterpiece, a play that will live on in the memories of any fortunate enough to see it because of its interweaving of the classic Shakespearian and Greek themes of family, ego, hubris, wealth, suicide, rebirth and destruction.
The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of, well, the Lehman Brothers, from their earliest days as mid-nineteenth century German immigrants who moved to Alabama to broker cotton to buyers in New York, and then taking us step by step through the development of the business over the generations until its astonishing growth and self-destruction during the banking crisis a decade ago.
The play touches upon Jewish-Gentile relations, the Civil War, the development of the investment banking model, the creation of finance as an entity, or as kids would say today, a “thing”, the crash of 1929, World War II, the post-war boom years, and the Icarus-like growth and collapse of Lehman when its bankers were overwhelmed by its traders.
Where does the idea come from to turn a history of money into a West End show? Perhaps just as Donald Trump gave dozens of people the idea that if he could run for President, so could anyone, Hamilton probably gave playwrights the idea that they construct an evening of theater out of just about any story.
While I’m sure that there is a much more dignified creation myth to the Lehman Trilogy, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody bet the playwright that he couldn’t take material as abstruse and factual as the almost two centuries of the Lehman Brothers and turn it into a glorious night of theater.
The ultimate post-Hamilton bar bet if you will.
Of course, seeing the results on stage, the idea of crafting a play out of the Lehman experience is inspired. Everything about the play works, especially the manner in which the three actors take turns playing a multiplicity of roles – various Lehman’s, wives, children, plantation owners, a Reconstructionist Governor of Alabama, New York traders, a Greek diner owner, consciousless traders and so on.
Equally remarkable is the manner in which the characters veer from acting out their parts to what playwrights call exposition – telling the audience what’s happening instead of showing them. Exposition in dialog is one of the most blatant taboos in the universe of playwriting. You just don’t have an actor standing there and telling the audience what happens next. But Massini, in the Lehman Trilogy, has his three actors advancing the plot through exposition dozens of times. And it works. Without that choice, Massini and Ben Powers, who adapted this version, could not possibly have turned seven generations of Lehmans into three hours in the theater.
And then comes the actors themselves. In the Piccadilly Theater performance I saw, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles give the performances of their lives in roles that actors would kill for, because the roles require so many different facets of their being as actors and such brilliant ensemble play with the others. Now one man is father and the other the son; now one is young Bobby Lehman meeting his new girlfriend and soon to be wife. Now one narrates while another plays the part of three different crash of ‘29 brokers, ending their lives with a pistol shot which immediately turns into a champagne bottle or even fireworks.
The play has the same complexity and manic intensity as the best work of Tom Stoppard, calling to mind the complexities, wit, and general expectation that the audience must keep up with what’s going on on stage as found in Travesties.
The Lehman Trilogy, in fact, is the best-constructed play since Travesties, and the performances I saw were just as compelling as John Wood when he played the principle roles in that complex play forty years ago.
All this is a prolix way of saying that the Lehman Trilogy is what you want from a night in the theater – the full range of human emotion; breathtaking performances; and brilliant staging. I haven’t even gotten around to the fact that the main props used in each scene are the file boxes that held the documents depicting the end of Lehman a little more than a decade ago).
If you like seeing cats on roller-skates and calling that a good night on the West End, don’t see the Lehman Trilogy. It’s going to be too much work for you. But if you want to see a play that gives everything a playwright, a trio of great actors, and brilliant direction can offer then do whatever it takes to get tickets to this once in lifetime show. The real-life Lehman brothers were all about creating value as their reason for being. This show creates all the value that a theatergoer could possibly demand.