- Title: The Lehman Trilogy
- Written by: Stefano Massini
- Adapted by: Ben Power
- Director: Philip Akin
- Actors: Ben Carlson, Jordan Pettle and Graeme Somerville
- Company: Canadian Stage
- Venue: St Lawrence Centre for the Arts
- City: Toronto
- Year: Run to Dec. 2, 2023
The Lehman Trilogy, a Tony Award-winning history play now on at Canadian Stage in Toronto, explores a century and a half of American capitalism through the lens of Lehman Brothers.
The 2013-semi-documentary drama, by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, was no doubt motivated by that American global financial services firm’s world-unsettling bankruptcy in 2008. But in the play’s three-and-a-bit hours, told over three chapters, that chapter number 11 is completely left out.
It’s the booms and busts and changes in business direction that came long before the subprime mortgage crisis that interest Massini.
The play begins with the original Lehmans – a trio of Jewish brothers who immigrated from Rimpar, Bavaria, to the United States in the 1840s and settled in Montgomery, Ala., to, initially, open a suit and fabric shop.
Henry, the eldest dubbed “the head,” Emmanuel, the moodier middle child dubbed “the arm,” and Mayer, the youngest and most charming dubbed “the potato,” are played in this Canadian premiere astutely directed by Philip Akin by Ben Carlson, Graeme Somerville and Jordan Pettle, respectively, and they are appropriately brainy, brawny and beguiling bros, also respectively.
This trio of male actors is known from their robust work with the three S’s of Ontario – the Stratford Festival, the Shaw Festival and Soulpepper – and therefore know well how to make their way through the wordiest of classical texts.
The Lehman Trilogy is, indeed, a very wordy show penned in a contemporary storytelling mode, which is to say Carlson, Pettle and Somerville take turns narrating, while slipping in and out of characters.
The first act sees the original three Lehman Brothers evolve their business from selling actual things out of a store to becoming cotton brokers – buying from southern plantations and selling to northern manufacturers at a profit.
By the end of this initial part of the play, their business has been mostly blown up as the American Civil War eliminates the evil system of slavery that underlay it.
In the second act, Lehman Brothers (and its brother partners) fully embrace a new identity as a bank – and eventually another generation of Lehmans take it over as it becomes a major player on the newfound New York Stock Exchange. Of course, 1929 looms. (Carlson is particularly enjoyable in this chunk as Philip Lehman – a preternatural negotiator who sees potential in the railway that his elders can’t).
The third act is a bit of a headscratcher from a dramatic point of view. It doesn’t jump ahead as expected but leans into the great stock market crash – and then scurries ahead past the Second World War and into the postwar period in a scattershot way. (Computers! The Twist!)
The story of the Lehman family itself, whose final member Bobby (Pettle) left the company in 1969, kind of peters out – and the tale of its turns toward the new dubious types of trading that brought it down is ultimately only touched upon.
But the absence of a large, obvious statement is part of the appeal of The Lehman Trilogy.
British theatregoers have long enjoyed big British plays that tackle the subject of American capitalism from a more overtly skeptical or satirical angle – shows like Lucy Prebble’s Enron, or Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica – which have flopped or been ignored in the United States.
The Lehman Trilogy perhaps had a better reception on Broadway because of Massini’s more aloof European take on America – though it appeared in New York, as it does in Canada, in a British-originated translation of Massini’s play by Mirella Cheeseman, which was shortened and adapted by National Theatre of Great Britain associate director Ben Power.
The lack of explicit finger-pointing has been criticized in some corners – notably due to a perceived downplaying of the central role slavery played in the building of Lehman Brothers.
If anything, I felt the opposite – that Massini avoids any nostalgic thesis that sees America has moved from making things to moving money around, or from value creation to value extraction, and instead suggests that amorality was embedded in its finance industry all along.
The Lehman Trilogy does not, mind you, have anything explicit to say about the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Designer Camellia Koo, however, has included a striking element in her set that won’t let you forget it or slavery – a stage on top of the St Lawrence Centre for the Arts stage that appears to be supported by bodies; the audience sees only the soles of feet sticking out.
In terms of sets that have surprises tucked up their sleeves, Koo is as close as Canada has to Es Devlin, whose striking rotating box set designed for the Broadway production of The Lehman Brothers was a big part of its success. Koo has created a tower of stacked brown wooden trunks that the actors climb up and down through the show with subtle movement direction by Alexis Milligan.
In the end, at least two thirds of this trilogy is riveting in this Canadian premiere. That’s not, all things considered, a bad bottom line, especially in this economy; let’s not get greedy.