NEW YORK — Time — more than a century, actually — really does seem to fly at the Park Avenue Armory, home at the moment to a spellbinding exercise in storytelling, as it can only be done on a stage: “The Lehman Trilogy,” a three-act drama about the rise and fall of a Wall Street giant and the double-edged seductiveness of the American way.
Director Sam Mendes and Italian playwright Stefano Massini, in a supremely elegant English adaptation by Ben Power, assemble through the exertions of just three actors a character-rich saga of Lehman Brothers, the venerable investment bank that went belly up in 2008, in what was the largest bankruptcy in history.
The superb British actors Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley narrate and embody generations of Lehman men (and women) in a tale of immigrant aspiration, American ingenuity and the outstretching of dynastic arms — until they overreach. An overconfidence fueled by a faith in capitalism everlasting eventually undoes the dynasty. And while it takes 3½ hours for “The Lehman Trilogy” to chronicle Lehman Brothers’ flourishing and ultimate doom, the dexterity of this stagecraft makes it feel like half that.
Visually, it’s all remarkable: A narrative that starts in the 1840s and ends 160 years later plays out in the three modern offices of a revolving glass cube, designed by Es Devlin. The cardboard file boxes presumably containing Lehman’s history form the building blocks of scenery that Beale, Miles and Godley manipulate to represent furniture and other props. And on a vast, semicircular screen behind them, Luke Halls’s videos, of cotton fields and oceans and skylines, mark the passage of epochs and cataclysms.
What Massini lays out, in a work first produced in Paris in 2013 and eventually in Power’s version, for London’s National Theatre last year, is not so much a “too big to fail”-style cautionary tale of fiscal irresponsibility. “The Lehman Trilogy” has a larger canvas in mind. It’s a work in love with the first ripples of great historical tides, with a most theatrical kind of scholarship: the tracing of massive cultural upheavals to some of their singular roots.
In the case of Lehman Brothers, the detective work goes back in time to the arrival on these shores from Bavaria of Chaim, later Henry, Lehman, the progenitor of the business, who settles in, of all places, Montgomery, Ala. He’s played by the peerless Beale as a man of pious but malleable ambition, who with his later-to-arrive brothers, Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley), turns a fabric store into a thriving middleman enterprise between the cotton plantations of the South and the textile factories in the North. Little remarked upon but weighing heavily on modern consciousnesses is the fact that the Lehmans’ wealth was built in these early years on the backs of slave labor.
It is a taint that never entirely wears off, as you watch the company expand into financial services on Wall Street, pouring money into industries (coffee, railroads) that will make it richer and into newfangled tools (PR, marketing) to knit itself ever more fundamentally into the national fabric. In Mendes’s direction you can feel an innate understanding of the restless urgency of immigrants proving their worth in a new land, an energy that infuses the successor generations with purpose but that, over time, corrupts with pomposity and entitlement. The decline is such that decades before the final bubble bursts, no Lehmans are left to run Lehman Brothers.
Beale, Miles and Godley, bearing absolutely no resemblance to one another, convince us utterly that they are all cut from the same Lehman cloth; they propel the story with a force that feels aerodynamic. Those rail lines the Lehmans underwrite seem to be carrying the drama with a locomotive whoosh. The counterpoint is the lovely underscoring composed by Nick Powell and performed on a piano at the lip of the stage by Candida Caldicot: Call it a fugue for stocks and bonds.
As they wielded ever more influence over the fate of their adoptive country, or were rocked by its signature events, from the devastations of the Civil War and the stock market crash to the triumphs of the postwar boom and the rise of technology, the Lehmans slowly shed much of their Germanic — and even some of their Jewish — identity. “The Lehman Trilogy” is a marvelous reckoning with their legacy, and a fascinating audit of a driven family’s psychic balance sheet.
The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. Lighting, Jon Clark; costumes, Katrina Lindsay. About 3½ hours. Through April 20 at Thompson Arts Center at Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave., New York. 212-933-5812. armoryonpark.org.