While attending another performance recently, during intermission I overhead two other patrons talking about TimeLine Theatre’s upcoming “The Lehman Trilogy,” written by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power and co-directed by Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling.
“…And it’s, like, three-and-a-half-hours long.”
“Oh, my God.”
“AND it’s about old-timey bankers.”
“Oh, my GAWD!”
Having just received my assignment to review said work and after such a “preview,” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”
It turns out that I had gotten myself into a well-crafted and capably produced play about one of the most prolific and capitalistic financial institutions of the last two-hundred years, whose powers literally built much of the infrastructure (and caused many of the economic collapses) that affect almost every person in the United States and abroad.
A snooze fest it was not!
While it feels weird to humanize people who are ostensibly responsible for so much historical class conflict, it’s hard not to root for the (original) Lehman Brothers.
Against a backdrop of boxes stacked to the ceiling, Henry Lehman (Mitchell J. Fain), a German-Jewish immigrant with a mind for business, arrives in Montgomery, Alabama in 1844 and opens a small textiles store that would one day become an empire. He is soon joined by his brothers Emmanuel (Anish Jethmalani) and Mayer (Joey Slotnick).
Henry, short, bald and with a pointed beard, is “the mind”; Emmanuel, tall and broad, is “the arm”; and Mayer, tall, thin and lanky, is, well, “the potato,” who is perhaps the most savvy of them all—“not bad for a potato!”
Together they keep an eye on the trends of economic production and exchange, shrewdly predicting which commodity and/or service will boom—cotton, coffee, railroads—and investing large amounts of capital in said commodities, buying low and selling high. They switch from textiles to raw materials, then banking to capital investment, amassing a fortune along the way.
Across three generations we root for them, these captains of capital, whose wit, cunning and familial fidelity has them overcome tremendous obstacles to achieve greater security for themselves and their children.
But should we?
In their business dealings there is a severe lack of moral judgment. The obstacles to be overcome are really atrocities, the worst in U.S. history, from which they profit. Cotton could be bought cheap due to the labor of enslaved African Americans. They take advantage of the economic turmoil in the South during Reconstruction. During a major recession, they use smaller banks as insulation against diminished profits, allowing the “Mom and Pop” to take the heat and fail while they continue to thrive. These are treated objectively by players and playwright as simply the costs of doing business.
The story by Massini—originally five hours long but trimmed by Power—is fun, moves fast and is very interesting. Fain, Jethmalani and Slotnick pull triple duty, acting every role—three generations of Lehman men and their wives—with pert vivacity, athletic stamina and loads of charm. Direction by Bowling and Stalling make use of ominous lighting, projection and minor special effects to turn the mountains of boxes in the background into rural countryside and a sprawling cityscape. The quality of the production is enough to make you forget your politics.
Regardless of the runtime and subject matter of “old-timey bankers,” by the end of TimeLine Theatre’s “The Lehman Trilogy” I was left wanting to learn more about this family that, for better or worse, had a big hand in shaping the course of history.
The Chicago premiere of “The Lehman Trilogy” by TimeLine Theatre Company runs through November 26 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 East Chestnut. Tickets are $35-$110 and are available by calling the box office at (312)977-1710 or by visiting timelinetheatre.com.