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With the opening of ‘The Lehman Trilogy,’ Broadway just got smarter — and more exciting

From left, Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale and Adrian Lester in “The Lehman Trilogy.” (Julieta Cervantes)

NEW YORK — Could the disastrous end of a titanic Wall Street investment bank supply the spark for surefire Broadway entertainment? Most certainly, when the firm is Lehman Bros., the director is Sam Mendes and the play is "The Lehman Trilogy," a sublime 3½-hour dash through the history of American capitalism that passes in what feels like no time.

Three top-of-their-game actors — Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester — play all of the characters in this big-picture account of the rise and fall of a prestigious house of finance turned to ashes in the economic firestorm of 2008. As conceived by playwright Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, “The Lehman Trilogy” is also a sprawling family drama, a tale by turns of immigrant ingenuity, cutthroat competitiveness and, ultimately, master-of-the-universe hubris.

The deft theatricality of Mendes, who won an Oscar for “American Beauty” in 1999, imbues the production with a winning air of improvisational wit, even as it moves through the decades with narrative panache. On a set by Es Devlin that spins like a glass top — a modern suite of offices filled with boxes of files — “The Lehman Triology” revolves effortlessly around the generations of Lehman men who forged paths for American commerce. And by American, of course, they mean the world’s.

The play, which marked its official Broadway opening Thursday at the Nederlander Theatre, had its initial New York outing at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in March 2019. The pandemic delayed plans for the production’s move to Broadway, now featuring two of the original cast members. Lester replaces Ben Miles, and it proves to be a most successful baton pass.

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The move to the Nederlander is a wholesale improvement for the show, which benefits enormously from the enclosed confines of a traditional proscenium stage. In the cavernous Armory, the set and actors were more physically isolated from the audience, creating excessive emotional distancing. These actors are so darn good that you dearly crave the sensation of shared intimacy, of feeling that Lester, Beale and Godley are there to confide the details of this evening to you personally. That effect is now achieved, splendidly.

Power, who wrote the lyrical English version translated from Italian and previously performed at London’s National Theatre, has tweaked the script; it now contains, for instance, a sly aside about mask-wearing during the flu pandemic of 1918. More centrally, the play comes across now as a more nuanced indictment of the unregulated capitalism the Lehmans and others practiced over the years — a catalyst for both the stock market crash of 1929 and the 2008 debacle that sank Lehman Bros.

That the Lehmans arrived in the 1840s as observant Jews seems a counterpoint morally to some of the businesses in which they served as brokers and middlemen. Settling in Alabama, the German-born Lehman brothers, Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, made a fortune selling cotton off the backs of enslaved people; later, they traded in the fossil fuels that powered the Industrial Revolution (and, we know now, contributed to climate change). Still later came the innovations that helped to democratize investing but also led to reckless abuses in financial lending. Oh — they also provided the capital for truly monumental accomplishments, such as the laying of American railroads and the excavation of the Panama Canal.

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“The Lehman Trilogy” is not a sermon, however. Costumed as the 19th-century founders, Lester, Godley and Beale assume the guises of fathers, wives, sons, friends and customers, building a warm generational saga out of simple artifice — much as they use the file boxes as the building blocks of humble storefronts in Montgomery, Ala., and modern-day financial back offices in Lower Manhattan.

Each actor has spotlight moments too numerous to chronicle here in detail, but a few that must be mentioned are Beale as the wunderkind Philip Lehman, rattling off brilliant schemes like a human teletype; Lester as statesmanly Herbert Lehman, a New York governor effetely railing at the company’s baser instincts; and Godley as extravagant Bobby Lehman, manically dancing to the avaricious tunes of the super-rich.

Over the course of three acts and two intermissions, the play segues seamlessly from one bit of expositional virtuosity to the next. “Where everything is a number, everything has a price,” Beale declares at one point. One of the triumphs of “The Lehman Trilogy” is that all those numbers add up to such an exhilarating human equation.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the names of Emanuel and Mayer Lehman. This article has been corrected.

The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. Costumes, Katrina Lindsay; videos, Luke Halls; lighting, Jon Clark; music and sound, Nick Powell. About 3½ hours. $49-$299. Through Jan. 2 at Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York.

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