In 1844, three brothers emigrate to America from Germany. They settle in the South and soon become successful in the business world of cotton. They move north and expand their business into other commodities, amassing a small fortune in the process. In New York, they turn their small fortune into a big fortune then into an even larger one. The family becomes the major player in investment banking. As the 20th century progresses, cracks begin to show as the family places non-family members in key positions. In a dramatic moment of ironic symbolism, as the last family member dies, so does the business, erasing the empire the family so carefully built over the past 163 years.
In many ways, it is a story often told. Immigrant comes to America to seek fame and fortune and succeeds. But this mesmerizing evening of theatre, written by Stefano Massini, is so much more than that. It is a truly remarkable play in every way. At over 3 hours long (with two intermissions), it is certainly of a length rarely attempted in contemporary theatre. But it never wears out its welcome or feels long. The evening flies by feeling shorter than many 2 hour plays I’ve seen and here is why.
First and foremost is the stellar cast of only 3 under the laser-sharp direction of Sam Mendes. The set (more about that later) allows for continuous momentum, never stopping for any reason. This allows one scene to flow right into the next keeping the pace from ever sagging even for a few seconds. Then there are the three actors onstage for the entire piece. Simon Russell Beale (Henry Lehman and others), Adam Godley (Mayer Lehman and others) and Howard W. Overshown (Emanuel Lehman and others) all play multiple parts often switching between two or more roles within the same scene. Despite no costume changes, they create such well-defined characters that you instantly know which one is speaking at any moment. They play characters that range from in age from infants and toddlers to elderly rabbis as well as playing a variety of people from antagonists to female love interests. As I said before, they make each one so distinct that you instantly recognize them when they reappear.
The set, designed by Es Devlin and beautifully lit by Jon Clark, is a play unto itself. A large cube of plexiglass panels set on a fast moving turntable allows the set to rotate to different positions so that you are looking into the boardroom and then in an instant you are in someone’s private office as they stare out the window at the city below. Upstage is a large screen curving around to the sides of the cube. Onto this screen is projected a multitude of scenery (often in motion) designed by Luke Halls. One moment you are in an office looking out at New York City’s iconic skyscrapers, the next you are on the prow of a ship as it sails across the Atlantic to the Lehman Brothers’ new home.
In an unusual but successful move, the entire production is underscored by a single piano played live in a corner of the stage. Much like in the movies, the beautiful score enhances moments without ever stealing the focus or drowning out the dialogue onstage.
If you have ever wanted to have an evening in the theatre that stimulates all your senses while telling a fascinating story by actors whose talents are at their peak, then I urge you not to miss this amazing production.
THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through April 10, 2022. For further information or to purchase tickets go to their website www.centertheatregroup.org or call them at (213) 628-2772.