There’s something inherently gripping about the story of an empire’s rise and fall.
Because most of the fireworks in such sagas tend to erupt during the fall, it takes a certain integrity to focus as heavily on the rise as “The Lehman Trilogy” does.
The downside is that the play’s climactic third act, when financial services behemoth Lehman Brothers dramatically collapses in 2008 after 164 years of existence, feels a bit rushed.
But there’s much more upside than downside in the Huntington’s intricate, generally absorbing production of “The Lehman Trilogy,” directed by Carey Perloff. Flaws and all, this 2022 Tony winner for best play is ambitious in scope and often superb in execution.
Written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and adroitly adapted into English by Ben Power, the play takes us deep inside multiple generations of a complicated family as they navigate interpersonal dynamics while their namesake company evolves and adapts to — or creates — changes on the business landscape.
A sprawling epic that runs 3½ hours, including two intermissions, “The Lehman Trilogy” is structured as a blend of narration directly addressed to the audience and the enactment of events.
A stellar cast of three: Joshua David Robinson, Firdous Bamji, and especially Steven Skybell — demonstrate considerable skill at building in-depth portraits of the original Lehman Brothers and their descendants, as well as quick sketches of the many other characters who orbit around them.
(I saw Skybell several years ago in Joel Grey’s Yiddish-language production of “Fiddler on the Roof” for off-Broadway’s National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, and he was the best Tevye I’ve ever seen or ever hope to see.)
Playing a key part in the overall atmosphere of “The Lehman Trilogy” is musician Joe LaRocca, who discreetly moves around onstage, playing saxophone, clarinet, and flute. Scenic designer Sara Brown and projection designer Jeanette Oi Suk-Yew have combined their talents to create a visual environment that feels both austere and alive.
The action begins in 1844 when German-Jewish immigrant Henry Lehman (Skybell) arrives on US soil after a 45-day ocean crossing and, as Henry puts it, “[steps] into that magical music box called America.” Then the action shifts to Montgomery, Ala., three years later, with Henry running a small store that specializes in cotton goods, joined by brothers Mayer (Bamji) and Emanuel (Robinson).
“The Lehman Trilogy” goes on to chronicle the firm’s progression over the decades, from financial involvement in the construction of railways to commodities brokers (Henry calls Wall Street “that street of miracles, where every day, men walk on air”). The devastation of the Great Depression in 1929, including the deaths by suicide of numerous stockbrokers, is grimly and grippingly conveyed.
Lehman Brothers fashions itself into an investment bank (television, weapons manufacturers, the oil industry), and, ultimately and disastrously, as a major player in the subprime mortgage lending market. That ended with declaration of bankruptcy by Lehman Brothers in 2008 that helped trigger a financial crisis that led to the Great Recession.
After earlier productions of “The Lehman Trilogy” were criticized for largely sidestepping the issue of slavery, certain lines were reportedly added to the Broadway version. In the Huntington production, a physician says, after the South has lost the Civil War: “Surely you knew it could not last, Mr. Mayer? Everything that was built here was built on a crime. The roots run so deep you cannot see them, but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned.”
But further emphasis on slavery as the bedrock on which the family’s fortune was built feels necessary. (As on Broadway, Emanuel Lehman is played by a Black actor — here, Robinson.)
Some have argued that “The Lehman Trilogy” plays into antisemitic stereotypes. Audiences will judge for themselves, but my takeaway from the depictions of the Lehmans in the Huntington production is that money per se is not what drives them. Rather, they are animated by an innate restlessness, the adventurous spirit of the original immigrant strivers Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer remaining alive through succeeding generations.
Of course, that can, and did, tip over into the kind of hubris that leads to tragedy.
THE LEHMAN TRILOGY
Play by Stefano Massini. Adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Carey Perloff. Presented by the Huntington. At the Huntington Theatre. Through July 23. $30-$175. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org