Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Lehman Trilogy
Also see Richard's recent review of Suddenly, Last Summer
But it takes forever to get there in The Lehman Trilogy, the reverential tale of one of the major houses of finance which (about 160 years after its inception) collapsed in the housing crisis of 2008. It's getting a sleek and energetic new production at the prestigious Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through September 24th. Stefano Massini wrote the respected history, adapted for the stage by Ben Power into a three and a half hour play with two intermissions. The original New York production won five Tony awards: Best Play, Best Actor (Simon Russell Beale), Best Direction, Best Lighting, and Best Scenic Design.
It's a three-act valentine to brokerage, tenaciously directed here by Carey Perloff, and one that seems determined to abolish the story of the 2008 Great Recession altogether. It concludes with a very admirable mad storm of modern Wall Street bankers raging at each other over computerized trading, as global marketing becomes their bizarre new religion. And then the splendid actor Firdous Bamji, as a 21st century titan of Wall Street, finally touches that downed power line of the id.
Even though their empire came crashing down in 2008, the play seems to suggest the Lehmans had absolutely nothing to do with banks buying up tranches of sub-prime mortgages–which put little old ladies from coast to coast into houses they couldn't afford, and then threw them out on the street.
The three actors (and one musician, Joe LaRocca) bang away on stage like John Henry driving steel railroad beams, first as the three original Lehman brothers who arrive in Alabama from Bavaria. They quickly develop a powerful conduit for getting raw cotton north to market, nearly twenty years before the Civil War. But it all seems very rote, as the trio goes on to play dozens of other Lehmans hastily climbing the ladder of success. Joshua David Robinson has an encyclopedic gift for creating unique voices and mannerisms for each of his Lehman-related roles. And Scott Wentworth mixes leonine power with a twinkling eye in his own long list of traders and others. But, truth be told, I've met a lot more honest-to-god bastards in church.
There is very nearly a dramatic motif about how the loss of the ritual of mourning may have led to the loss of an institutional memory, and likewise the loss of an empire. But that literary investment never reaches full maturity. Instead, we get a shell game of three actors popping up again and again, like peas from under walnut halves, playing different traders or their wives or children. Then, three hours into it, we finally get to Mr. Bamji's electrifying, stalking horse of a trader: a Trumpian madman, from outside the family line.
I was pleased and relieved (halfway through the show) by the spectacle of stockbrokers blowing their brains out or plunging to their deaths in the compelling market crash of 1929. Drama, at last! Yet somehow, the Lehmans themselves emerge unscathed.
Structurally, it reminds me of a very different puff-piece, Becoming Dr. Ruth: the fawning play about the impish sex advice personality, in which Teutonic Ruth Westheimer sets her mind on doing something–and then turns right around and proclaims she's done it. Like Julia Child, pulling an infinite number of crown roasts out of the oven again and again. It's the same thing here, for the first three hours.
A play can never just be a "cooking show," though. And even if it was, this Lehman play could still trim some fat and rub in a lot more salt, for introspection.
The Lehman Trilogy runs through September 24, 2023, at the Loretto-Hilton building on the campus of Webster University, 130 Edgar Rd., Webster Groves MO. For tickets and information, please visit www.repstl.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association