Review: In The Lehman Trilogy, Three Actors Tell the Story of the Rise and Crash of an Iconic American Business

Timeline Theatre’s new production of The Lehman Trilogy tells the story of the rise and fall of an iconic American business—starting as an Alabama dry goods merchant and becoming one of our greatest investment banking houses. This story of the three Lehman brothers and the businesses they found is a prototypical immigrant story that ends with the firm’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis and market crash of 2007-08 that became known as the Great Recession. It’s a drama about greed, capitalism and brotherhood—and the centuries-long story is all performed by three actors.

The actors perform as the three original Lehman brothers, their children and generations of grandchildren, as lovers, spouses, colleagues and competitors–both male and female. This tour de force acting is done with barely a costume or makeup change. The scenic design and props are minimal too. 180 years of history are performed with a few tables and chairs against a wall of filing cartons, punctuated with screens and other projections.  

Co-direction by Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling paces the story well as it moves through more than three hours of drama, sagging a bit from too much detail in the middle. The script by Italian playwright Stefano Massini takes certain liberties with the details of the Lehman story anyway, as Timeline’s excellent backstory acknowledges in its program supplement. The play was adapted by Ben Power and debuted at the National Theatre in London in 2018, transferring to Broadway in 2021, where it scored a resounding hit.

Mitchell Fain and Anish Jethmalani. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Mitchell Fain, a talented physical actor, plays the oldest brother, Heyum Lehmann, a Jewish immigrant from Bavaria. He arrives in New York harbor in 1844. The port official transposes his name to Henry Lehman and Henry’s new life begins.  He settles in Montgomery, Alabama, to open a small fabric shop. Three years later his younger brother, Emanuel (formerly Mendel, played by Anish Jethmalani) arrives in Baltimore and joins Henry in the business. And soon after that, the trio is complete when the youngest brother, Mayer (Joey Slotnick), arrives.

The new sign on the growing shop says Lehman Brothers, Fabrics and Suits. Soon after that, Henry decides they will now sell everything that’s needed to grow cotton to the owners of the plantations—seeds, tools, carts. Emanuel objects; Henry insists. The sign changes; it simply says Lehman Brothers.

And that’s basically the Lehman brothers’ story. Ideas, growth, expansion. When the plantation owners are unable to pay for their seeds and tools, the Lehmans take payment in raw cotton and resell it to the mills—at first in the South and then in New  York. They become brokers or middlemen, an occupation they invent. With a large mill customer in New York, they decide to open an office there at 119 Liberty Street.

The business survives the war between North and South. As it ends, Mayer proposes to the governor of Alabama that Lehman Brothers become a bank to help rebuild the state and revive the economy. And thus the brothers who are brokers in cotton become brokers in money. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Jethmalani, Slotnick and Fain. Photo by Liz Lauren.

I do have a major objection to the script, which glosses over the Lehman firm’s role in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-08, brought about by their use of securitization of mortgage loans. (Lenders bundle subprime mortgages—and get them off their books—and sell them to investment banks where they become mortgage-backed securities that can be traded. The big law firm that I worked for at the time played an important role in developing and marketing the concept of securitization, which they never hesitated to boast about at the time. I still have a securitization t-shirt that brags “Saving the world … one basis point at a time.”)

The script devotes only a few lines to the final decades of the firm when “They broke up the business, divided the assets…. The company was sold and sold again.” The subprime mortgage crisis, which crashed the economy and meant many people lost their homes because they had bought at extra-low mortgage rates, gets not a mention. For an overview of the Lehman Brothers’ downfall, see this case study.

The play has also been criticized for ignoring the labor exploitation underlying the Lehman successes. When you talk about growing cotton in the mid-1800s, you are talking about slavery. When you talk about mill workers, you are talking about low wages and poor working conditions.

The Lehman Trilogy is a trilogy in that there are three brothers and three acts. The script is written with a great deal of direct narration to the audience by the three actors in their various roles. Their Jewish practices play a role as well, as we learn how they mourn the loss of Henry, who dies of yellow fever at the age of 33, and when they celebrate holidays, marriages and more deaths. While Jews may be thought of as a Northern urban population, there is in fact a long history of Jews in the South; there are many large Jewish communities in the South today. See this page and its sources for more information.

The Lehman Trilogy by Timeline Theatre continues at Broadway in Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., thru November 28. Running time is 3 hours and 20 minutes with two intermissions. Tickets are $35-$110 with some premium-priced tickets available.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.