NEW YORK — For 3½ hours, three sublime actors hold us in their thrall, in one of the most absorbing critical hits of the Broadway season: “The Lehman Trilogy.” The story, taking place over more than a century and a half, chronicles the rise and fall of one of Wall Street’s titanic investment houses. Lehman Brothers collapsed in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 — a stunning denouement for a historic financial force behind the laying of the nation’s railroads and the digging of the Panama Canal.
Lehman Brothers’ tragic arc presented Italian playwright Stefano Massini, British adapter Ben Power, and Oscar- and Tony-winning director Sam Mendes with an astonishing dramatic canvas, one that begins with the arrival of the German-born Lehmans in Alabama in the 1840s. And it requires a powerhouse cast — in this case, Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester — who are onstage throughout, portraying dozens of roles in a sweeping family saga.
The run of “The Lehman Trilogy” ends on Broadway on Jan. 2 and reconvenes in March in Los Angeles with Beale, Godley and Howard Overshown taking over for Lester. Before its New York finish, I had an opportunity to sit down with the Broadway cast at a longtime Times Square dining spot, Gallaghers Steakhouse, for a talk about the meanings and challenges of being on the inside of an epic. (This conversation has been condensed for clarity and length.)
Q: Simon, did you know the story of Lehman Brothers before you signed on?
Simon Russell Beale: I knew a little bit about the crash. I followed it a bit. I saw the pictures, the famous pictures of the boxes being brought out, but I knew nothing about the family. And so I bought a book and did a quick bit of reading about that. But my knowledge of economic theory is nothing.
Q: But the gist of the show is not about being an economics major, understanding the financial system.
Adam Godley: No, and certainly, you know, what I loved about it and found just so moving about it as a piece of work was that it really does focus on this family. The story is told by these three brothers, and it really is a story of family, of immigrants. These Jewish brothers and their struggle, and what came out of that. And it allows us to infuse it with humor and humanity that is so familiar to anybody that’s a human being or has a family. They can relate to it.
Q: Adrian, you joined the company for Broadway. [Beale and Godley were in previous versions at the Park Avenue Armory and in London’s West End.] It’s your Broadway debut. What was it that made you want to do this?
Adrian Lester: Well, it’s these two [indicating Beale and Godley]. Sam [Mendes] is another draw. And I came away after seeing it amazed that the three of them managed to create so many characters. [Ben Miles originally played Lester’s roles.] And 3½ hours — I thought, oh, my God, as I was walking away, [that’s] amazing. I thought, “What about matinee days?”
Q: Adrian, I’ve seen you do “Othello”; I assume you’ve done “Othello” twice in a day. So come on!
Lester: I got to leave the stage!
Beale: That’s a good point! We are locked in!
Q: I think we should explain. You’re in an essentially revolving glass cube that is modern, set in the offices, presumably, of a fading Lehman Brothers.
Godley: The conceit is that everything we use, any practical prop that we have, is something that would be in that room in 2008.
Q: I was struck by the morality play aspect of the story. It starts as a company that [brokers the sale of] cotton, which we all know has a deeply troubled history in this country.
Beale: I was thinking about it this morning, thinking that so much of what we do, just generally in theater, is you force judgment on the audience. If you’re playing [“Othello’s”] Iago you make sure the audience knows he’s probably not a good thing. This play is about presenting these moments of change in the company and for the audience to go, “Hmm, not sure about the morality of that.”
Godley: But it’s often presented without judgment.
Q: But do you have to love the character you’re playing when you’re doing it every night?
Lester: It’s useful not to judge them. We don’t want to spend our time wagging our finger at the world, going, “By the way we all know this is bad, right?” Because then the audience is shortened on their journey. They get to ask themselves deeper and more probing questions through the performance if we simply present it and say, “There it is.” Then they’re left to question much more. Not only about the people they’re seeing onstage, but also the environment they live in.
Q: You know, there are some people who get a little bit uncomfortable with [portrayals of] Jews and money. And when you bring those two ideas together, people make assumptions. How do you think that is treated in “The Lehman Trilogy”? Do you think it’s treated fairly, and presented as not necessarily a story that’s supposed to make you make assumptions about Jews and their way of making their way in the world?
Godley: This is a story about money and economics. And so some red flags come up. But I would say from the absolute get-go, we have not had a single negative response in that regard. And, you know, I’m Jewish, I know a lot of Jewish people. We had a wonderful rabbi, Daniel Bernstein, who advised us on this and helped us with a lot of it. I can tell when there are a lot of Jewish people in the audience: Adrian has a line about Reform Jews. And you have to be Jewish to know what that means. Right? And the chuckles and the laughter and the enjoyment of those things, I can feel them getting on board with us.
Q: An Italian playwright thought up this American story, translated and honed in the United Kingdom. And now you guys who were trained and grew up in [Britain] bring this to an American audience. Was there any trepidation about whether you’d be accepted as the vehicles for telling this quintessential story that belongs to us, not particularly to you?
Godley: I don’t know that we worried about that particularly. When we’ve played this in London, we’re telling a sort of exotic story. Whereas you come here, a lot of our audience know the streets we’re talking about, they may have worked for the company. But it’s an interesting question about perspective. Stefano Massini, who’s a Florentine Catholic, writing this story about three Orthodox Jews coming to America and forming this company, you think, “How does that work?” But somehow perspective gives you a slightly more interesting, slightly distanced view about something.
Q: Your entire audience on Broadway, you only see half their faces because they are wearing masks. You don’t really get that kind of level of communication, perhaps, that you’re used to. Is there a different kind of pleasure when it’s a masked audience, or is it the same experience?
Beale: I mean, I’m very shortsighted, so …
Lester: I have a habit doing Shakespeare, where if I have to address the audience, I find a face. I find faces. It’s just the thing in me that I want to talk to someone. And other actors have told me that I’m just mad.
Godley: You can hear the quality of listening. You can really tell when people are engaged as a quality of attention and silence, even though there are 1,000 people sitting there. You hear it and you can really feel it.
Q: Does the story change for you over time? Do you have to find new ways to engage yourselves that keep it alive for you?
Godley: Playing it for this long has allowed us to really delve deeply into these people. And to each moment that you can fully invest in that verse, that adds a kind of richness to the evening. So hopefully the piece just gets better and better and better over time.
The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Sam Mendes. Through Jan. 2 at Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. ticketmaster.com.