Theater Review: “The Lehman Trilogy” — The Trials and Tribulations of the Mercantile Class
By Robert Israel
The Lehman Trilogy is epic in its proportions and ambitions, so it is ironic that it sacrifices opportunities to probe troubling topics.
The Lehman Trilogy, by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Carey Perloff. Staged by Huntington Theatre Company, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston, through July 23.
There are really two plays in The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of The Lehman Trilogy. First there’s the play we see that tells of Jewish immigrants who made their fortune in America at the turn of the last century through hard work and keen business acumen. Then there’s the play we don’t see, about how these same men exploited others to gain wealth and power that their progeny ultimately squanders.
The HTC does a spirited job with the first: a talented cast of three (who take on several roles and serve as narrators), tackle an unwieldy script with muscle and verve. As for the unseen play, the script does not delve into the troubling facts that the Lehmans were slaveholders, and that they, like many Jews, were subjected to antisemitism. The program attempts to touch on these painful discords in the hope of engaging audiences who in many cases are all too aware of these issues. But a theatrical production is not a college seminar; audiences should not be required to refer to a syllabus or read clarifying footnotes. What we get, then, is a frequently taxing production that, while sporadically entertaining, fails to explore those unspoken themes — namely, the still festering wounds of racial hatred that remain at the core of our nation’s — and the Lehmans’ — legacy.
The play, which runs 3 hours and 35 minutes, finds plenty of other themes to cover. Here are a few of them: the Lehman brothers’ discovery and cultivation of their prized commodity — cotton, or “Alabama gold”; an examination of their Jewish roots and practices; the establishment and nurturing of their family life; and how they chose to be — and remained — strategically “in the middle,” never taking sides lest it derail their business pursuits. They were neutral (and profitable) even as Americans slaughtered each other during the bloody years of the Civil War.
In the opening scenes, when Henry Lehman (Steven Skybell) arrives stateside after a 45-day voyage across the Atlantic, he intones the words “baruch Hashem,” or “blessed be God,” a phrase repeated throughout the play. These words are usually uttered by devout Jews to acknowledge a personal devotion to the dictates of a Higher Authority. When intoned by Henry and by other Lehman brothers, it is essentially reduced to an expression of thanks for having had good luck. Jewish observances are depicted throughout the play — honoring the Sabbath, lighting the Chanukah candles, intoning the prayers for the dead — but the Lehmans are not spiritual. They identify culturally as Jews, but they unabashedly worship Mammon. That’s why — as we follow them pulling off one successful business deal after another — “baruch Hashem” devolves into variations on the phrase “We are merchants of money.”
We slip and slide through the eras, and Sara Brown’s inspired scenic design welcomes the fluidity of movement. When the two other brothers, Emanuel (Joshua David Robinson) and Mayer (Firdous Bamji), arrive stateside, the actors bound on stage as if they were a pair of jack-in-the-boxes. Brown has cleverly designed wooden crates — like those that once held bales of cotton — to transform into doors, pillars, and even chalkboards. The only problem is that, throughout the play, the actors tend to slam the doors of these crates. We get that they are exiting and entering — there’s no need to trumpet these movements. The crates also serve as screens for photographic projections; kudos to Robert Wierzel for his lighting design and Mark Bennett and Charles Coes for their sound design.
Director Carey Perloff understands the gestalt of these brothers and their families, but relies too often on accentuating repetitions of gesture to convey character changes. For instance, when one of the brothers is courting a woman, the performer will become that woman, inevitably resorting to mimicking a feminine prance — mainly because it elicits laughter. After repeating the same business — numerous times — the antics are played out.
The Lehman Trilogy is epic in its proportion and ambitions, so it is ironic that it sacrifices opportunities to probe troubling topics. One leaves the theater thinking the Lehmans would have pretty much approved of how they are depicted here: they saw themselves as Americans and high-flying businessmen. They had their troubles and failures, but they introduced cutthroat business concepts that are pursued with vigor today. Yes, we live and worship in a capitalistic nation. But it is the emphasis the culture places, or avoids placing, on the value of our human relationships — and creating a society that reflects our better selves — that matters. And it is this theme — of how we can achieve a more rewarding life beyond earning money — that is sorely missing in this play.
Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at email@example.com