Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The Lehman Trilogy
The story spans over a century and a half as it traces the trajectory of the Lehman brothers from their humble beginnings when they first arrived in America from Bavaria and started their early years in Alabama as cotton traders. We witness the challenges and triumphs that three generations of the family encountered and the rise of their company through the Civil War and the stock market crash of 1929 into one of the largest financial firms in the United States. In 2008, the real estate crisis caused the company to basically implode, and the final moments of the play focus on the aftermath of the company's downfall with poignant reflection.
Massini's script, originally written in Italian and adapted by Ben Power, is a sweeping epic that uses a series of vignettes to weave together historical events and personal stories into a rich, detailed tapestry that spans over 160 years and runs three hours. While there are dozens of characters of both sexes in the play, Rod Kaats' skillful direction and the talented cast of three men make it an easy to follow story as they expertly navigate their way through playing multiple roles with ease while ensuring the story remains engaging. The script is poetic in its language, which allows the audience to connect with the characters, and it's also fairly easy to understand how the company succeeded, even though it occasionally focuses on complex financial and business matters. While much of the plot is serious in tone, there are also moments of levity that help balance the tension.
However, there are some shortcomings in the overall script and in this production. The first two hours are a fantastic, richly detailed exploration of three immigrants who came to America to strike it rich and did, and who then had their sons follow in their footsteps to expand the family business. During these parts of the play, you always have a sense of why the business grew, due to smart business decisions the brothers made, and the year or decade these events happened from the dialogue or from Dallas Nichols' projections of archival photos or the year. The 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath are the focus of the first half of the third act and then the last 20 minutes are a quick rush to get to the company's downfall in 2008. During these scenes you never truly have a sense as to what year it is and if you didn't already know what brought the company down–their involvement in the subprime mortgage market–you wouldn't know it from the way the play ends. It's a very haphazard rush to the ending to an otherwise brilliant play.
There could also be a few instances where you feel that the play verges into antisemitism due to the way the Jewish brothers are depicted as being ruthless business men who, at times, seem to not care about the people they are profiting from. Also, while Stephen Gifford's sleek set design is interesting, it's also busy with the constant movement of cases, tables, benches, and chairs to form the various locations which, at times, is awkward and distracting and never truly additive to the play.
Fortunately, the cast is superb. Michael Stewart Allen, Josh Clark, and Michael Kary brilliantly portray the three patriarchs of the Lehman dynasty, Emanuel, Henry, and Mayer, respectively. With nuance, depth, a range of accents, and varied body language, all three also seamlessly play a number of memorable and distinct Lehman descendants and other characters across the generations the play depicts. Their performances are authentic, with each one contributing to the breadth and depth of the story.
The Lehman Trilogy is an epic tale of multiple generations of a family as well as an introspective study on how a tightly run family business can expand and grow exponentially due to smart strategic investments but then fail when bad business decisions are made and the wrong people are put in positions of power. While I had a few issues with the last part of the play and some of the staging, it's a deeply human story about the strength of family, the power of brotherhood, and the drive for ambition and wealth that may find you reflecting on your own personal business decisions and choices and how the drive for wealth and power can often not end up how you'd planned.
The Lehman Trilogy runs through February 11, 2024, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or call 602-254-2151.
Written by Stefano Massini
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.