Lehman Trilogy Photo

Review of Seattle’s ACT Contemporary Theatre’s Presentation of The Lehman Trilogy

If a play has “Trilogy” in the title, it’s going to be long. With a run time of 3 hours and 20 minutes, The Act Contemporary Theatre’s presentation of The Lehman Trilogy feels like a Ken Burns aficionado attempted to turn a ten-hour documentary into a three-act fictionalized play. The result is a densely packed, tonally flat presentation of the founding, expanding and eventual dissolution of an American global financial service known as Lehman Brothers. 

Although the show is full of many interesting details concerning Lehman Brothers’ origin story and the company’s remarkable financial growth amid a changing American and world landscape, I felt like I was attending a useful but overlong employer mandated weekend seminar or a three-plus-hour certification class with the possibility of earning college credit. 

When I looked around at the audience stretching and adjusting themselves during the play’s two intermissions, many of the theater goers had the body language of students readying themselves for another hour of note taking. Others seemed to be developing a strategy on how to stay awake with the play ending a little after 11 pm. Note to those in charge: a three-plus-hour running time might necessitate an earlier start than 7:30 pm. I’m not an “eat at 4 pm retired Floridian,” but getting home from the theater around midnight on a Thursday is not my idea of good time management.

The cast and creative team do their best trying to keep the audience engaged with a script that’s about 80 percent voice over narration. Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play embraces a mostly tell, seldom show approach, which made me feel as if I were listening to a book report from a student who thought all the details of the book were equally important and worth mentioning regardless of my receptivity. And yes, much of the show and the biographical details are interesting. My wife commented during both intermissions that the show was in fact, “interesting.” Although, her repeated use of “interesting” seemed like she was trying to justify the wisdom of dedicating three-plus-hours to the endeavor. 

The adept and talented ensemble of Bradford Farwell, Robert Pescovitz, and Brandon J. Simmons do their best to make the experience engaging. However, their worthy efforts cannot overcome the play’s weaknesses. Throughout the night, I kept asking myself, “What is this play actually about?” The play touches on a myriad of themes such as the complexities of the immigrant experience, the complexities of running a family business, the complexities of capitalism, the complexities of finding a spouse, the complexities of being a Jew, and the complexities of memorizing way too much narrative dialogue. There are lots of complexities, but not a unifying, theatrically compelling, engaging narrative. 

The play seems most interested in telling Lehman Brothers’ corporate financial history, while peppering in the occasional story of matrimony or family discord. Every once in a while, the play pauses to give a macro history lesson on well-worn topics such as the Civil War or the 1929 stock market crash. At one point, the play gives extra focus to the somewhat apocryphal claim that numerous people died by suicide in response to the stock market crash. I assume the suicide emphasis is included to give weight to the Lehman Brothers’ predicament. Personally, I found the suicide montage to be a sensationalistic substitute for the play’s lack of a clearly compelling dramatic theme and narrative arc. I felt The Lehman Trilogy lacked an engaging dramatic focus to move the play beyond its somewhat interesting, over-long corporate history moorings.

People extremely fascinated in the evolution of American capitalism, banking and investing strategies may find enough interesting details within The Lehman Trilogy to make the show worth their time. My biggest problem with The Lehman Trilogy was my lack of interest or connection with the characters. Although the play presents the rise and decline of a family business, I found the entire history to be problematic and off-putting. 

The first act matter-of-factly presents the Lehman brothers and the Lehman family leveraging the oppression of others to make a profit. They center themselves within the cotton trade, profiting greatly from slave labor and the need for the south to find buyers in the north. The play focuses almost entirely on their business acumen, over and above the human cost of slave labor profiteering. 

Later in the play, the Lehmans are presented as almost indifferent to the moral complexities of the Civil War, adopting a form of neutrality to preserve the family business. As history passes and the play lengthens, we see each Lehman generation, and eventually the Lehman corporation, pretty much do whatever is necessary to grow their company and satisfy their shareholders. 

The play presents Lehman Brothers’ behavior becoming increasingly unscrupulous, leading to bankruptcy and the destruction of the Lehman Brothers’ company and name. For me personally, the entire Lehman Brothers’ history appears a bit unscrupulous as each generation embraced the morally ambivalent virtues of a capitalistic society that determines personal and national health based on financial growth and stock market gains.

This leads me to the most uncomfortable aspect of The Lehman Trilogy: the play’s propensity to align with antisemitic tropes. In the Lehman Trilogy program, Rabbi Daniel A. Weiner graciously and tactfully addresses genuine concerns with the play. He writes: 

Many will simply assume that the Lehmans are representative of a Jewish affinity for and facility with finance, without a deeper appreciation of this being a classic antisemitic trope emerging from the constraints put on Jews for centuries, denying them access to other means of support, and forcing them to become the “moneylenders” of lore.

The Lehman Trilogy does not make any effort to address the unique challenges of being Jewish within American capitalism. The play also frequently uses Biblical imagery and Jewish religious practices to explain the financial dealings of the Lehman family. At one point, the aspirations of a Lehman family member are compared to building the tower of Babel, a story often used to teach lessons about immoral avarice for wealth and power. The Lehman Trilogy presents a Jewish American story about finance and lending without addressing anti-sematic tropes. The lack of nuance and context makes the material problematic and dated.

Director John Langs and the rest of the creative team do their best to overcome the weaknesses of The Lehman Trilogy. I particularly enjoyed the set design’s transfiguration throughout the show. If only the play had followed the same dramatic arc as the set. The actors try really hard to act all the words that tell all the stuff about all the things that were said and done by a company that is no more. Even so, after three-plus-hours, the best I can say is…interesting. 

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