The sprawling “The Lehman Trilogy” spans 163 years of history as it follows the breathtaking rise and earth-shattering fall of the Lehman corporation, from a small fabric and clothing store, run by German-Jewish immigrants who settled in Montgomery, Ala., in the 1840s, to the fabled Wall Street firm that collapsed in 2008. Told with just three actors embodying dozens of characters, the three-act play is a cautionary tale about capitalism run amok and the warping of the American Dream, an epic parable about “the absolutely dire consequences of unleashing unbridled ambition and greed,” says Carey Perloff, who’s directing the work at the Huntington Theatre June 13-July 16.
When Lehman Brothers and other institutions imploded in the 2008 financial crisis, Perloff says, “the people running the banks walked away with hundreds of millions, but the people who’d been given subprime mortgages lost everything. The consistent underbelly of the American Dream is some people walk away and do fine no matter what havoc they wreak, and a lot of people end up back at square one with nothing.”
Adapted by British playwright Ben Power from Stefano Massini’s original work, this English-language version premiered to rapturous reviews and packed audiences in 2018 at London’s National Theatre. That production later transferred to Broadway, where it became one of the hottest tickets in 2021 and won the Tony Award for best play. It was helmed by British film and theater director Sam Mendes and featured a starry English cast. The Huntington’s new staging marks the first American production of the play, with a mostly American cast and creative team.
“What would this story of German Jews, who emigrate to Alabama, look like if it were being told by American artists?” says Perloff. “There are lots of things about American culture that [non-Americans] aren’t party to, just by our own lived experiences.”
In this saga, resourceful Hayum Lehman (Stephen Skybell) arrives in antebellum Alabama from Bavaria, changes his name to Henry, and opens a small dry-goods store. Soon, two of his younger brothers, tempestuous Emanuel (Joshua David Robinson) and charming Mayer (Firdous Bamji), join him in America. Over the years, the three brothers transform the business from a shop proffering fabrics and clothing into a powerful firm buying cotton from plantations and selling it to factories in the North.
Over many decades and through crises like the Civil War, the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression, and two world wars, subsequent generations of Lehmans continue to transform and reinvent the business, from a brokerage house trading commodities to an investment bank and then into the nebulous world of high finance.
In recent years, there’s been a wave of plays (“Enron,” “Junk”), television series (“The Dropout”), and films (“The Big Short”) that chronicle stories of financial industry malfeasance and spectacular falls from grace, and “The Lehman Trilogy” captures why we’re fascinated by these strivers, dreamers, and fabulists.
“We admire people with vision, imagination, and sheer chutzpah to dare to do these things,” Perloff says. “By the same token, that fake-it-till-you-make-it sensibility that’s gone through the history of American finance and Silicon Valley is very dangerous. We realize that half the time some of these people are utterly reprehensible, and so we relish their falls.”
This quintessentially American story, Perloff says, grapples with the reality that the Lehman brothers made their fortune from cotton. “So this is a play about slavery, even though it doesn’t really delve into slavery in a real way. But we who are the inheritors of that stain have to reckon with it.” That idea is especially resonant at a time when Americans are wrestling with the truth that generational wealth was built in part on slavery.
As an American Jew, Perloff also felt the responsibility to reckon with “the tropes about Jews and money, which have always fueled antisemitism. It’s particularly virulent now in America and across the world. So I wanted to make sure that we dug into that.”
With three actors transforming into all the roles in the play and with minimal props, the play asks the audience to use their imaginations. As the years drag on, the time shifts become lightning quick. “One moment, you’re staging a 20-second Jewish wedding, and the next moment, you’re in the Civil War,” Perloff says.
Perloff hired Mark Bennett to compose an original score, and Joe LaRocca will perform the music live onstage, playing a variety of instruments, from clarinets to saxophone and flute.
Loretta Greco, the Huntington’s artistic director, says she was “like a dog with a bone” as she chased the rights to “Lehman,” hoping the Huntington would get the chance to stage the play’s first American production. “It’s an opportunity to look at the history that’s been excised, to look at how the past shapes who we are today, and how the pursuit of profit at all costs affects the soul of our nation,” she says. “The opportunity for catharsis is huge. So I’m hoping the experience brings us to a deeper questioning of what we want this country to be about, what we value and where our national soul is centered.”
THE LEHMAN TRILOGY
At the Huntington Theatre, June 13-July 16. Tickets from $25. 617-266-0800, huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.