By Sarah Downs
How great is New York City! Theater, opera and dance abound, much of it excellent. Then there is that one evening you take a seat in a darkened theater and see a performance that utterly blows you away. That was what happened to me on Wednesday night at the Nederlander Theater. The Lehman Trilogy is the best play I have ever seen on Broadway.
Through an alchemy of design and execution the epic tale of the growth – and eventual implosion – of an empire from a small store in a Southern backwater to the behemoth so powerful one need only refer to it by the one name, “Lehman”, has been brought to shattering life in this extraordinary play. It left me breathless.
Director Sam Mendes has wrung every possible dramatic whisper from Ben Power’s brilliant adaptation of Stefano Massini’s, far reaching, complex script, with its seemingly boundless emotional scale. Indeed, infinity features throughout, in Luke Halls’ video projections on the semicircular backdrop, extending the space into the vast beyond, and Nick Powell’s evocative, haunting music. Infinity spins Es Devlin’s spare glass and chrome set, and sparks Jon Clark’s lighting, as it flickers from antiseptic to operatic. Color, gesture and sound flow in constant motion.
The three Lehman brothers – Henry, Mayer and Emmanuel – anchor the structure of the narrative, as each actor’s ‘home’ character. Katrina Lindsay‘s costumes of black suits, tailcoats and top hats reinforce that constant. The actors wear these suits throughout the play, visually binding past and present. Three incredible actors have taken on these roles, alternating as storytellers and actors, each stepping out of one character and into myriad other individuals as the drama and narration of Lehman Brothers’ history come to life in parallel.
The Lehmans immigrated from Bavaria to build new lives in a new country, in what could be one of a thousand stories of American families. Henry arrived first. From the moment the lights go down and Simon Russell Beale as Henry Lehman steps on stage, the air immediately changes. It tingles with anticipation. A melody not unlike a merry-go-round tune plays in the background. Beale’s focus draws us in before he utters a word, and then he brings the stage to life. Whether the warm-hearted Henry, a plantation patriarch or the flirtatious Babette who steals Mayer’s heart, Beale is flawless.
As the somewhat geeky Mayer Adam Godley exploits his lanky form in a variety of broadly drawn characters from quiet, diplomatic, innovative Mayer to louche man-about-town. His range is incredible. Adrian Lester as Emmanuel strikes a more serious tone, by turns innocent and cynical. His eventual portrayal of the insidious stock trader Gluckstein, is terrifyingly on point. You cannot take your eyes off Lester, with his predatory stare and vulgar self-confidence. These performances are nothing short of extraordinary. The memorization alone is a superhuman feat that defies comprehension, and yet the three of them make it all look easy, in a tour de force of stamina and discovery.
The set, a chic, modern office space with windows on the Manhattan skyline echoes with metaphor. Stacks of bankers boxes and papers – the matériel of the executive battlefield – lie here and there. A central clock quietly reports the inexorable passage of time. All of the action takes place on this one set, rotating to feature different rooms, as the actors weave through its chambers in a veritable dance. It is the dance of money and power, to the tune of piano, or violin, or jazz trumpets. And the beat goes on.
The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester. Es Devlin (Scenic Design), Katrina Lindsay (Costume Design), Luke Halls (Video Design), Jon Clark (Lighting Design), Nick Powell (Composer & Sound Design), Dominic Bilkey (Co-Sound Design), Candida Caldicot (Music Direction), Polly Bennett (Movement), and Zoé Ford Burnett (Associate Director).
Runs through January 2, 2022, Tuesdays – Fridays at 7:00 pm, Saturdays at 7:30pm; matinees Saturdays at 1:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm, at the Nederlander Theatre (208 W 41stst). Tickets available at Ticketmaster. Run time is approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes with two 15-minute intermissions (but the time flies!)