Thirteen years after a bunch of grungy Bohemians whined about paying “rent! rent! rent!” onstage at the Nederlander Theatre, a new show there is sermonizing about the evils of “bank! bank! bank!”
Funny. Broadway, normally a $2 billion money machine where a glass of pinot grigio costs ⅓ of your ticket price, sure loves its anti-capitalist screeds.
And it certainly will like “The Lehman Trilogy,” a slick British import about the spectacular rise and fall of the Lehman brothers that opened Thursday night. Self-important economics lectures aside, the drama is an exciting and invigorating piece of theater, even if it’s a bit high on itself.
Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes, two intermissions. Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.; 212-921-8000.
“Lehman” has walked a long road to Broadway — first to London and off-Broadway — and this production is the best it’s been. I found Ben Power’s play pretty dull at the UK’s National Theatre in 2018, and was bored out of my mind for most of its flight-to-the-Bahamas runtime.
But back then it was performed in a cavernous space that swallowed it whole. Deadly. Broadway’s relative intimacy gives the drama a much needed jolt of life and includes the audience more. Although, with two 15-minute intermissions, it’s still too long, you’re swept away by director Sam Mendes’ grand storytelling.
Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Adrian Lester — a killer trio — play a stack of Lehmans over three acts as the company morphs from a tiny Alabama shop in 1847 to the powerful New York investment bank that collapsed in 2008.
The first Lehmans — Henry (Beale), Emanuel (Lester) and Mayer (Godley) — narrate their penniless 19th century journey from Germany to America and give themselves nicknames: Henry is the head, Emanuel is the arm and Mayer is the potato. The writer, Ben Power, repeats words and phrases over and over again to jam information into your skull. It works. I never want to hear the word “potato” ever again.
Playing sons, wives, fathers, fellow businessmen and narrators, the three actors, with remarkable clarity, explain how ambition, smarts and family pride birthed a behemoth, like it or not.
The tiny store turns into a massive cotton reseller, and in Act 2 it becomes a bank. During the third part, Philip Lehman (Beale) sinisterly realizes his company’s most lucrative product is money itself — or more specifically, making regular people think they have it when they don’t.
All those lightbulb moments are overblown, and you can sense the writer wanting to tack on an evil “Muwhahahaha!” at the end of each. Yet what Power has done in cramming so much dense history into one enjoyable package is awfully impressive.
So is the work of Mendes, who has pulled off a dynamite one-two punch with “The Lehman Trilogy” and the sensational film “1917.” After a lull, he’s back big-time. Mendes has staged the play on a cool, rotating, plexiglass office, and the actors stack boxes, scribble on the walls and dance on desks to magic up new locations. There are a whole lot of bells and whistles, but after 18 months of nothing, you don’t mind the noise.
The best of the three men is Godley while he plays Bobby Lehman, the business’ leader for more than 40 years. In one sequence, with no help from tech or prosthetics, he physically changes from a charismatic executive into a skeletal corpse using only movement. It’s gross. It’s funny. It’s horrifying. You gotta see it.