Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at TimeLine Theatre Company/Broadway In Chicago

TimeLine Theatre Company’s Chicago premiere of the epic, three-act play runs through November 26, 2023 at Broadway In Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse

By: Sep. 29, 2023
Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at TimeLine Theatre Company/Broadway In Chicago

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is a sweeping play that covers 164 years of history as it weaves together fact and fiction to chart the rise and fall of Lehman Brothers. The play’s title mirrors the ambition of the piece: It has a run-time of over three hours that unfolds in three acts — all performed by only three actors. The trilogy in the title is thus a literal reflection of the play’s structure and the roles, but it’s also suggestive of the piece’s mythical nature. Likewise, playwright Stefano Massani’s script (adapted by Ben Power) has a rhythmic storytelling style; the actors often narrate their own stories and actions in a chamber theater type of presentation. Although the run time is long, the fact that THE LEHMAN TRILOGY covers so much ground means it remains interesting throughout.

This is a big play, but co-directors Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling have given the production a sense of intimacy. As the titular trio of Lehman brothers (and countless other characters), Mitchell J. Fain, Anish Jethmalani, and Joey Slotnick play most of the action downstage, close to the audience. And the direct address in the storytelling makes it all feel intimate. 

The production design evokes the inevitable end of Lehman Brothers from the onset. Colette Pollard’s set finds the actors in an empty office space; piles and piles of Banker boxes (properties designed by Lonnae Hickman and Amy Peter) take up real estate onstage, along with rows of office chairs and mugs full of pencils. Upstage, a sideways Lehman Brothers sign indicates the demise of the firm. Interestingly, Fain, Jethmalani, and Slotnick also creatively use the Bankers boxes as props in their storytelling. In contrast with the more modern looking set, however, Izumi Inaba’s costume designs are traditional, with the men wearing suits evocative of 1840s Bavaria/America. The actors don’t change costumes between acts. And thus the production design reflects the lifecycle of the Lehman Brothers. 

That’s a fitting choice because the play itself charts the Lehman brothers’ story “from ashes to ashes, dust to dust” to quote an oft-referenced verse in the Torah. Strikingly, Jewish tradition also plays a pivotal role in the play and adds another layer of mythology to the storytelling. The play finds the Lehman family gradually adhering less and less to traditional Jewish values as it goes on. When we meet the original Lehman Brothers, Henry (Fain), Emanuel (Jethmalani), and Mayer (Slotnick) at the beginning of the play, they hold steadfast to their Jewish beliefs. Henry is the head of the trio, Emanuel the arm, and Mayer refers to himself as the “potato” — the go-between. And when Henry dies suddenly of yellow fever, Emanuel and Mayer take a full week to mourn their brother and the new imbalance in their trilogy. Massini repeats this mourning ritual at a few other points in the play; the repetition is interesting, and the tradition evolves. Overall, the shift too in how the Lehman family practices Judaism throughout the play echoes the family evolution; as the Lehmans amass more wealth and become increasingly more embedded in capitalism, then likewise their morals and their religiosity declines. It’s an elegant way of representing that trade-off. 

In that sense, THE LEHMAN TRILOGY uses the fable of the Lehman brothers to likewise mimic how American society on the whole has become more and more capitalist and more and more embedded with rampant consumerism in the past 160-plus years. Massini’s script skillfully reflects how the Lehman family’s story is a microcosm of the larger story of the American dream. Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer arrive from Bavaria in America with little more than the clothes on their backs, and as the Lehman family business evolves and grows, the family must build the business time and time again. The play’s first act concludes with the Civil War and the second with the stock market crash of 1929 — and yet the Lehmans weather both those storms (of course, as we now know, they did not weather the 2008 crash). The Lehman family is resilient and resourceful — but the play also demonstrates that that comes at a moral cost. I was curious how the play would cover such a vast amount of ground; it gives most of the history due time, but the ending was actually a bit rushed (perhaps because most audiences are familiar with the firm’s inevitable collapse). 

It’s an absolute feat that Fain, Jethmalani, and Slotnick perform the entire show and every single role. Slotnick is charming particularly in his main role as Mayer, with sly comedic line deliveries as the “potato.” I didn’t think Slotnick was quite as skilled as his counterparts, however, at distinguishing between his various roles. Jethmalani brings his usual grounded presence to Emanuel, and he brings a similar sense of calm to all of his roles. While all three actors tackle this play with aplomb, I think Fain is the undisputed star of the show. He starts the show onstage alone as Henry. He’s both a powerful presence and a gifted comedic actor, particularly in the roles of various female love interests for the Lehman family members. He’s also delightful in the pivotal role of Emanuel’s son Philip Lehman; he’s equally convincing as the precocious six-year-old Philip and the grown-up Philip, running the family empire. 

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is an engaging exploration of American values and the seemingly endless quest to amass more wealth, and it uses the story of the Lehman family as a mythological lens through which to explore that. In essence, it’s a cautionary tale. TimeLine’s production finds the balance between the grandiosity of the play’s length and scale, the immense demands placed upon the three actors who tackle it with grace, and the more intimate result of this being a three-hander. It’s simultaneously a larger-than-life myth and a totally human story of survival and greed.

TimeLine Theatre Company’s THE LEHMAN TRILOGY runs through November 26, 2023 at Broadway In Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse, 175 East Chestnut Street. 

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren

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