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The Lehman Curse

After a string of flops, can the nearly four-hour Lehman Trilogy play turn around Wall Street drama?

Nearly every year, it seems, at least one major play about the financial world opens in New York. In 2017, it was Junk, the Mike Milken-inspired flop written by a Pulitzer Prize winner. Despite the playwright’s credentials, Junk didn’t generate much of a stir. Nor did Enron, which drew raves at the Royal Court Theatre in London. But when it debuted on Broadway in 2010, it closed after a month — a major bust. 

This year brings The Lehman Trilogy, written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, which debuted March 27 at the Park Avenue Armory. The Lehman Trilogy tells the generational tale of the Lehman family, whose company reached its demise in 2008 during the financial crisis. But it’s more than the story of 2008.

The play opened originally in Milan and transferred to the National Theater in London, where it earned raves, before reaching New York. It’s directed by Sam Mendes, known for his Oscar-winning film American Beauty and for directing the revival of Cabaret on Broadway. 

The producers of the play are not trying to attract the masses. Most remaining tickets for the limited run cost $425 each, although $150 balcony tickets and limited $45 student rush seats were or will be available. Ads emphasize the extremely tight 30-performance schedule and closing date of April 20.

These financial plays have proliferated because, “There’s a notion in the culture now that business is as important to running our life as any government institution,” explains Terry Curtis Fox, chair of dramatic writing at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. The zeitgeist has also spawned successful cable TV series like Billions and Succession. Business has become the focal point of artists exploring “why people do what they do,” he says. As far back as the 1950s, for example, Arthur Miller used business at the set for moral considerations in All My Sons (revived on Broadway this year) and The Price.

Nonetheless, many financial plays don’t live up to expectations. Some get criticized for not being authentic enough, failing to get the details right, and overlooking the complexity of life in the financial world. Many — like Junk — use financial greed as a metaphor, but fail to create three-dimensional characters and flop.

Too often playwrights aren’t tuned in to the intricacies of Wall Street life, and the depiction rings hollow. Fox points out that playwright David Mamet worked in a real-estate office, which gave authenticity to his masterpiece Glengarry Glen Ross.

But the Lehman family saga will likely resonate with theatre aficionados and financiers alike. “It’s the story that none of our parents wanted to share,” Fox says. “Anytime you have a story about the rise and fall, of gaining great power and losing it, that’s a dramatic story.”

To be successful as a playwright detailing the intricacies of the financial world requires great research and the ability to “get inside the people and see them as human beings, whatever their motives, and most importantly, to create an individual voice and point of view,” Fox says.

Opening night at the venerable Park Avenue Armory attracted precisely the crowd you’d expect. Men with silver hair and dark sports jackets accompanied well-coiffed wives or partners. Most audience members looked like financial advisors, attorneys, and architects; these were not the 40 percent of Americans without any retirement savings. One attendee discussed test-driving a Tesla.

The Lehman Trilogy’s opener echoes that of Sunset Boulevard, the 1950 Billy Wilder film, which starts with the main character narrating what happened when he died. It begins at the ending.

With The Lehman Trilogy, a radio broadcaster retells the day in 2008 when the federal government revealed that it legally is not required to bail out Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy on September 15, 2008. Then Massini’s play flashes back to 1844, with Henry Lehman emigrating from Bavaria, Germany, to Montgomery, Alabama, and opening a modest fabric shop. His brothers Emanuel and Mayer soon follow. That modest shop becomes a cotton plantation, which eventually burns down.

Making oodles of money drives the Lehman brothers. The more the better. Money fascinates them, beguiles them, entices them, confounds them, delights them, drives them and the more they can make, the better and more powerful they feel. It’s the ultimate elixir.
 
They move from Montgomery to New York, where one brother exclaims, “The real money is made.” New York becomes a metaphor — as it has in innumerable other works — as the ultimate place to make it.
 
Massini’s three-act play — which lasts nearly three hours and forty minutes with lengthy intermissions — still fails to dramatize how the Lehmans made their money and outsmarted the competition. The brothers narrate in third-person what happened to them, which doesn’t convey a three-dimensional sense of any of the Lehman family, other than their ability to scratch out dollars.

After the opening scene, nothing happens in the present. It’s all recounted, as if they were sitting around a campfire telling the tale of how the famous Lehman Brothers left Bavaria for Alabama, and finally became masters of the investment banking universe in the greatest monetary city in the U.S. And then it all collapsed.
 
Oddly enough for a play about a fortune crumbling, there’s an absence of drama. That’s somewhat made up for by the three potent British actors who star: portly and powerful Russell Beale, sophisticated Ben Miles, and lanky Adam Godley, who resembles Ichabod Crane. Those three play an assortment of characters, including wives, girlfriends, children and competitors, and wow the audience. But, as someone once said, the play’s the thing, and this play lacks panache.
 
What was the curse of the Lehman brothers and their family? An overweening desire for money? Greed? A code that lacked morality? A tunnel-driven vision that finally self-destructed? The theatergoer will have to decide that question; Massini wasn’t much help.