There are some theatre experiences you will never forget. "The Lehman Trilogy" at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre is one of them. Expert storytelling by three amazing actors, directed by Sam Mendes and melded into sublime staging—including breathtaking video projection and a revolving glass set—alchemically combine to fill the mind and move the spirit. If there were a Platonic ideal for theatre, this would be it.
Not that it’s perfect. There’s a lot of storytelling to keep track of, especially with its three hours run time and two intermissions. But the writing and delivery are always engaging and often mesmerizing—and the story itself remarkable—with every effort made through the acting, visuals, live piano and other sound effects to enable the audience to absorb every detail. The play washes over us like the sea, each of its three acts like a wave with its own rhythm.
That’s the big picture, created by precisely composed minutiae, all expertly designed, like any good work of art. The three actors—Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Howard W. Overshown—inhabit their various roles with enthusiasm in conveying the generations-long story of the three Lehman brothers who immigrate to America from Germany, bringing both their Jewish heritage and ability to adapt in the face of adversity.
They tell this story through flowing words delivered with nuance, often poetic in how they layer and repeat, with lines of varying length and mood—the script adapted by Ben Power from Stefano Massimo’s original. Mood is heightened by continuous live piano music composed by Nick Powell, directed by Candida Caldicot and played with feeling by Rebekah Bruce and Em Goldman.
And the whole story is framed and contained in a rotating glass box designed by Es Devlin and effectively lit by Jon Clark, with a video backdrop designed by Luke Halls spanning the back of the stage and changing to enhance both scene and emotion—from the skyline of New York to burning cottonfields in Alabama. The glass box is furnished as a modern office with banker’s boxes as the main prop variously standing in for rolls of cloth, ladders and even the Tower of Babel.
What creates the production’s powerful effect is the enchanting ways these elements subtly combine to hypnotically entrance the audience, like the dwarf shuffling cards on a New York street that Philip Lehman—son of middle brother Emanuel—outwits through “strategy.” Philip’s own son Bobbie proves to have visionary powers of his own, leading the Lehman Brothers enterprise through the Great Depression and into even further burgeoning financial success.
But the original Lehman Brothers began more humbly in Alabama in 1844, the three immigrant brothers first selling cotton cloth from a small shop before becoming middle-men brokers selling plantation cotton to cloth factories in the North. We learn that when the Civil War puts an end to slave labor in cotton fields, the Lehman operation moves to New York, where trade in goods soon morphs into trade in shares and, eventually, simply trade in money. At every potential setback, we see how the brothers find a way to adapt, their Jewish faith providing a foundation of identity and leading to mostly solid marriages along the way—though the time of mourning grows less and less for each brother as he dies, the disintegration of religious ritual just one of the tolls America exacts for seemingly unlimited capital success.
The three actors seamlessly slip into all the side roles as well, usually evincing humor—from plantation owners to potential wives to prodigious children—with minimal visual cues such as glasses. They are otherwise ingeniously dressed by designer Katrina Lindsay the same way throughout, in well-tailored dark suits with Matrix-like frock coats that facilitate their near continuous motion, including climbing on desks and dancing the twist.
Beale and Godley seem most comfortable and sprightly in their roles (Beale as Henry and Philip, Godley as Mayer and Bobbie), though Overshown captures both Emanuel’s steadfast straightforwardness and the burly brusqueness of a financial trader who proves to be instrumental to the Lehman company’s later success. And the three work excellently as an ensemble, effortlessly engaging with each other as they move fluidly through the set.
Every story has an end, and this one is ushered in with a remarkable visual and kinetic performance, culminating in a single phone ringing into silence that heralds the 2008 financial crisis and collapse of Lehman Brothers, foreshadowed at the beginning of the play. We are left astonished, moved and utterly transported by both the story and spectacle.
Sam Mendes and cast and crew have created a masterpiece with “The Lehman Trilogy,” one that warrants all the “must-see” reviews, this one among them. Though a financial story sounds dry, this isn’t really that—it’s a story of people, words, ideas and the glorious bubbles they can create, some lasting multiple lifetimes, which some might call an American Dream. It’s a fairytale, in other words, though fabricated from real life, like cotton woven into whole cloth or money spun from nothing before vanishing again into thin air.
“The Lehman Trilogy” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through April 10, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $35 to $225 and can be purchased by calling the Center Theatre Group box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting CenterTheatreGroup.org.