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SCRUTINY | CanStage’s The Lehman Trilogy Is Brilliant, Not-To-Be-Missed Theatre

By Paula Citron on November 17, 2023

Jordan Pettle, Graeme Somerville, Ben Carlson in The Lehman Trilogy (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Jordan Pettle, Graeme Somerville, Ben Carlson in The Lehman Trilogy (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Canadian Stage/The Lehman Trilogy, written by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Philip Akin, Bluma Appel Theatre, until Dec. 2. Tickets here.

Imagine a tower of giant gold bars, and you have Camellia Koo’s inventive set for the Canadian premiere of esteemed Italian playwright/novelist Stefano Massini’s mind-boggling epic The Lehman Trilogy.

Since this is a play about the history of the Lehman brothers and their rise to capitalist glory, what better playground is there for them to run up, down and all around than the enchanting spectre of gold.

The three German-Jewish Lehman brothers arrived in the United States from Rimpar, Bavaria, the first in 1844, in search of the American dream. Henry (the Head), Emmanuel (the Arm) and Mayer (the Potato) — played by Ben Carlson, Graeme Somerville and Jordon Pettle, respectively — settle in antebellum Montgomery, Alabama. (You’ll have to see The Lehman Trilogy to understand the nicPHilip knames.) The playwright doesn’t explain how these immigrants ended up in Alabama, of all places, but I sure am fascinated to know why.

Through the device of storytelling/narration, interpolated by brief scenes, The Lehman Trilogy traces the brothers from the humble beginnings of their dry goods store in Montgomery, through building their fortune as middlemen cotton brokers, to ending up owning one the world’s largest investment banks. It’s not all plain facts. Massini is also a writer of sly wit.

The brilliance of the Lehmans was that they were able to survive catastrophes such as the Civil War and the stock market crash of 1929 while earning profits where they could, such as investing in war matériel. Opportunism was their key to success, manifested by recognizing a winning ticket when they saw it, like tobacco, railroads or computers. They even invested in the massive hit movie King Kong.

Canadian Stage: The Lehman Brothers Trilogy (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Canadian Stage: The Lehman Brothers Trilogy (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Of course, Lehman Brothers is infamously known today for its spectacular 2008 collapse, in part due to the subprime mortgage debacle, which triggered one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression. The play ends with this demise, but no Lehman was on the board at the time. The last actual Lehman to lead the bank was Robert (Bobby) who passed away in 1969. One wonders if there had been a Lehman in 2008, would the firm have survived?

Apparently, the original 2014 play in Italian ran for five hours and so, for the first English language production in 2018, the great director Sam Mendes worked with writer Ben Power to reduce the material to a 3 hour, 20 minute version with two intermissions.

What is absolutely astonishing is that the above mentioned three actors play all the parts brilliantly which includes the brothers, wives, sons, and grandsons, not to mention every other person they encounter. Each man is superbly believable, although there are missed words, particularly from Somerville. Nonetheless, it is a feat of acting that must be seen.

Revered director Philip Akin has given us a mesmerizing stage picture that has Carlson, Somerville and Pettle negotiate their way through the set, lifting lids on the gold bars to pull out props as needed, or pushing bullion chests around to animate storylines. They must have been in training for months before taking on these roles.

Because these are three of the finest actors in the country, Akin had the tools in hand to differentiate between the various generations of the Lehman dynasty. That only a trio of performers are carrying off this show is simply astounding. The over three hours fly by.

Steve Lucas’s lighting is very imaginative, particularly his special effects, while Dana Osborne’s white shirts and black suits work through every generation. I also like the fact that there is no music. Miquelon Rodriguez’s soundscape cleverly includes only realistic noises.

There have been complaints levelled against Massini’s play, the brothers making a profit on the backs of slaves, for example. Or, that their perceived greed for money is an antisemitic salvo. I respond by saying that the rise of the Lehmans is the play’s trajectory. The audience can take away their own thoughts about the brothers’ seeming lack of guilt about slavery, and that they were empire-building Jews is simply a matter of fact. This is not a play about wokeness.

My only complaint is the ending. Once Bobby Lehman is gone, just a brief few scenes take us through to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which is not very well explained. I do, however, realize that Massini couldn’t leave the bank still standing.

That cavil aside, make sure you get yourself to the Bluma Appel Theatre for this monumental undertaking. The Lehman Trilogy is the kind of brilliant, provocative theatre that you do not want to miss.

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Paula Citron
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