Broadway review: Gripping ‘Lehman Trilogy’ is a masterwork of storytelling, the best thing on stage in a while

A banner advertising "The Lehman Trilogy" hangs in front of the Park Ave Armory on March 26, 2019, in New York. (Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
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Chris Jones Chicago Tribune (TNS)

NEW YORK — If you head over to Wikipedia to remind yourself of why the financial services firm known (technically) as Lehman Brothers Holdings collapsed into the largest bankruptcy in American history in 2008, impacting everything from the value of your house to the security of your job, you’re greeted by a bold-faced warning.

“This section may be too technical for most readers to understand.”

Unknowingly, those anonymous editors say it all, right there. Don’t they?

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Lehman Brothers fell apart amid the subprime mortgage crisis. They were over-leveraged, overextended, over-engorged and, most importantly, overrated. America didn’t see it coming because few people, even the paid professionals, understood precisely what they were doing there in their shadowy Gotham world of shoveled mortgage tranches and opaque derivatives and naked short-selling.

Say what?

But if you walk through the doors of the “The Lehman Trilogy,” which finally opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway Thursday night after falling to the pandemic after just a couple of preview performances in March 2020, rest assured that you will understand. Much better than you have before.

That’s partly because this gripping piece of docudrama — the three-act script is by the Italian writer Stefano Massini as adapted by Ben Power and directed by Sam Mendes — is so precise in its storytelling. It’s partly because the Broadway cast is made of three masterful British actors in Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester and Adam Godley, playing successive generations of Lehmans running the firm as it morphed from a tatty fabric store in Montgomery, Ala., to a glittering titan of Wall Street.

But it’s mostly because this show, an import from Britain’s National Theatre and far and away the best thing I’ve seen on any stage since before the start of the pandemic, is determined to explore the story of the Lehman Brothers from myriad angles.

Its central achievement, to my mind, is that it both gives a nod to capitalist American ingenuity, to the ability of three German Jews to come here with nothing and build an empire born of shrewd ideas and anticipating the needs of the customers, while pointing out, time and time again, that all winners beget losers.

Most moralistic business narratives about the fiscal collapse of 2008 are preoccupied with how American capitalism went from manufacturing, buying and selling actual things to dealing in abstract notions like the packaging of debt. And since that entire system required the maintenance of belief in the system, that led to catastrophe once that requisite confidence evaporated.

“The Lehman Trilogy” is about that, too, charting how the Lehmans eventually figured out that you could buy and sell coffee without so much as sniffing a bean. But the show, which comes with a narrative intensity (and tour-de-force acting) that makes its three-hour-plus running time feel too short, doesn’t leave it there.

You also come to see how Lehman could not have become Lehman without profiting from slavery, which is also true of a broad swath of New York’s financial firms. You see how a company that fought tooth and nail against government regulation itself needed help from the state of Alabama when its world collapsed in the Great Depression of the 1930s, and how it then leveraged the people’s purse to its own benefit.

And, since our time on this planet is spent mostly with family members, the show also explores the age-old motif of sons trying to kill off their fathers’ ideas and supplant them with variances of their own invention. And once their loving papas grew old, there was nothing their fathers could do to stand in the way.

The Lehman story is both one of how American business slowly became unmoored from tangible products and lives, and one of a progressive loss of control as the company, and America, spiraled off into a rootless future no old German Jew could possibly have anticipated. No matter how brilliant they may have been.

Most of the stage time is spent on the early days of the company, as these fathers and sons bet furiously on new-fangled things like railways or entertainment. I’d argue the very final years get short shrift and those notorious 2008 moments deserved a closer examination, even if that had taken an extra hour.

But that’s a minor quibble. Mendes’ staging, employing a set from Es Devlin dominated by the final, glass-walled locus of the fall of Lehman Brothers Holding, is both epic and personal. And it’s a consistent pleasure to watch these three actors change characters with the alacrity of a trader on the market floor pivoting to a shift in the market.

The show makes the TV show “Succession” look simplistic, and I love “Succession.”

In fact, “The Lehman Trilogy” is the kind of work that asserts the difference between theater and television, that reveals many things only live performance can do. And unlike many other shows, you will not be told what to think or be watching a script that wants to change your behavior.

Or does it? Reason indeed to don a mask and find out.

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“The Lehman Trilogy” plays at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York; TheLehmanTrilogy.com
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