Having covered the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent Great Recession as a journalist in 2008-2009, I didn’t know what to expect when I recently returned to the theater for the first time since the pandemic to watch Sam Mendes’ play, “The Lehman Trilogy.”
Written by Stephano Massini and adapted by Ben Powers, the play packs 164 years of history into 3 hours and 15 minutes (with 2 intermissions). The good news is I never once looked at my watch as the actors, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester, adeptly breathed life into this immigrant story about family, money, capitalism, power and greed.
“Many people come thinking they're going to see a very specific and detailed breakdown of the 2008 crash, and that's not what happens,” Godley, who plays the youngest Lehman brother, Mayer, tells Yahoo Finance Live. “What you see is a very detailed and specific breakdown of what led up to that.”
After sold-out runs at London’s National Theater and New York’s Park Avenue Armory, “The Lehman Trilogy” had just four performances on Broadway in March of 2020, before Broadway – and much of the world – abruptly shut down because of the pandemic.
Directed by Academy Award and Tony Award winner Sam Mendes, the show takes us from Lehman’s humble beginnings as a mercantile store selling cotton in 1844 in Montgomery, Ala., to eventually becoming one of the most powerful investment banks in the world, before its spectacular fall nearly two centuries later.
“To a New York audience, we're talking about them and their life and their city,” Godley said. “There's so much of this story that hits home for people. They were working at Lehman. They were working in the financial industry. So we very much feel like we're bringing the show back home.”
For a show that takes on such a heady topic as the rise and fall of a Wall Street institution, there were surprisingly lighter moments that solicited laughter from the audience.
The three actors play 53 characters among them during the show, effortlessly weaving between men, women and children.
“We enjoy the absurdity of it. I forget that I'm a rather plump 60-year-old with a beard when I'm playing an 18-year-old young girl from Alabama,” said Beale, who plays the eldest Lehman brother, Henry. “In my head, that's what I am, and the audience enjoys the journey.”
All the action takes place in and around a large revolving plexiglass box that serves as the Lehman office.
For anyone who remembers the days following Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, one image stands out: cardboard boxes. On the TV news and in newspapers, we saw video and photos of Lehman employees pouring out of their offices holding their belongings in cardboard boxes as they vacated the building – and their jobs.
That imagery is not lost on Mendes, who has the actors move around cardboard boxes on the stage throughout the play to set up various scenes.
“The boxes contain a life, really,” explained Lester, who makes his Broadway debut playing the middle Lehman Brother, Emmanuel. “I think even now, walking out of an office with one of those boxes has become a symbol for someone who's been let go. And they're carrying all their hopes and dreams...in that box as they leave.”
We watch as the investment firm re-invents itself through wars and the Great Depression. In a moment of foreshadowing, Godley’s character tells his brothers that the best way to survive the 1929 stock market crash is to not be one of the first banks to go under because the government would be less likely to save the first casualties.
Fast-forward nearly 80 years later, and Lehman Brothers was the second investment bank to fall behind Bear Stearns in the mortgage-backed securities meltdown. Soon after, the U.S. government declared their rival banks “too big to fail” and came to the rescue.
“It's difficult to define at what point ambition becomes greed,” said Beale. "I'm no economic expert, by no means, but at some point, an economic system has to rely on people's trust in its value and its workability. Right from the very beginning, these three brothers are going around saying, “believe in us, believe in us,” and people do – up until the point when they don't.”
"The Lehman Trilogy" is playing a limited 14-week engagement at Broadway’s Nederlander theater through Jan. 2, 2022.
Alexis Christoforous is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AlexisTVNews.