The Lehman Trilogy, Shakespeare Theatre Company

 Lehman Brothers was a finance firm that stretched across the globe until it suddenly collapsed in 2008. The Lehman Brothers were three immigrants to America, who moved to Alabama one by one and started selling cloth and dry goods, changing their business one step at a time to not just stay afloat but to earn more and more money. The Lehman Brothers is a play that tries to tell this story from its root to its end, turning finance and facts into theatre.

Mark Nelson, Edward Gero, and René Thornton Jr. in The Lehman Trilogy. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

Stefano Massini's play, as adapted (and abbriviated) by Ben Powers for English-speaking audiences, is a sprawling three act three-hander, charting both the business and the family, although never straying far from the business and giving little mention of anyone who didn't work for the family business at a high level. Under Arin Arbus' direction at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, actors Edward Gero, René Thornton Jr., and Mark Nelson portray the original brothers as well as their descendants and assorted peripheral characters.  Arbus' direction is imaginative and the actors do well with the direct address narration that dominated much of its text, a tricky feat when the run time is long and the finance-speak holds some potential for peril and losing the audience in a mountain of numbers higher than the peaks of shredded paper that dominate the upstage area in Marsha Ginsberg's set design.

The difficulty does remain, however, that however skillfully rendered and imaginatively theatricalized, audiences are still watching a well produced, well written book report about a financial institution.  The Lehman men are drawn with a single, consuming interest in making more money than they did the day before; nods are given down the line to two descendants who had hobbies outside of the business and these fade away.  There is very little sense of who these men are beyond their pecuniary ambitions, no sense of the fullness of their humanity, and for a play that is likened to one of Shakespeare's history plays, it's a comparison that does no favors. Further, if ever we might get a fleeting glance of a fuller picture of a character, the text steers us right back towards a focus on the ever-growing business that likewise doesn't seem to be adequately interrogated in the text. The company at the heart of the play is one that first flourished directly on the labor of enslaved Americans in the cotton trade and grew to encapsulate all the worst impulses of American capitalism. I found myself questioning how much the play is actually concerned with that element of the story that it's telling, or if it's so caught up in trying to tell the story well that it's less concerned with the value of its subject matter. Playwrights are certainly not compelled to moralize in their work or even to make moral judgements, but three hours into a three and a half hour show, it certainly feels as though the men portrayed are being lionized if not idolized, and the moral decay at the foundation is merely paved over with a fleeting remark from a tertiary character and a solemn pause onstage before getting back to business.

René Thornton Jr, Mark Nelson , Edward Gero in The Lehman Trilogy. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

As I left the theatre, I witnessed many patrons who seemed very happy with the production. One line I overheard, however, has stayed in my mind: "Well, you have to appreciate the stamina!," one woman spoke, as she inched down the crowded aisle. I can appreciate the stamina, the work, the skill, and I very much do--any night when I am able to see both Gero and Thornton (well-known to me from his many years down at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, VA) is not a bad night at the theatre. It's a difficult feeling to respect the talents on stage, to see the concentrated drive to serve the play, and yet be left with the feeling that the play itself isn't up to their standards of work. Many people would disagree with my assessment, and that's perfectly fair; every critic comes to the theatre with their own perspective and has a responsibility to evaluate from that perspective, not from an imagined popular or universal one. But if the feeling I'm left with is, "well, didn't they work hard!," that's also not a great night at the theatre, at least for me.


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