Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Canadian Stage

Financial family epic is a sound investment

By: Nov. 18, 2023
Review: THE LEHMAN TRILOGY at Canadian Stage

How do you build one of the greatest financial empires the world has ever seen?

A head, an arm, and a potato.

According to Italian playwright Stephano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy, in 1844, Hayum Lehmann (lay-man) first set foot in America, coming from the town of Rimpar, Bavaria, with little more than the clothes on his back. Soon to be dubbed Henry Lehman (lee-man) by a customs official with little ear for the intricacies of Hebrew, he settled in Montgomery, Alabama. The oldest brother and the studious, measured “head” of the family, Henry (Ben Carlson) was soon joined by Emmanuel, originally Mendel (Graeme Somerville), and Mayer (Jordan Pettle), who survived with his first name intact.

Emmanuel was the family’s “arm,” a man of constant action and a single-minded bull. Little brother Mayer, the beardless “potato,” was the charmer, peacemaker between his two willful brothers and negotiator as they went from selling fabric to becoming some of America’s first “middlemen” for cotton, eventually running an industry where money became its own product.

In Canadian Stage’s production, three powerhouse performances, a surprising and meaningful staging, and a sweeping story outweigh the curious neutrality of the script to create a vital, must-see show with high stock value.

Massini’s script, translated by Mirella Cheeseman and adapted by Ben Power from its original five hours down to three, is full of masterful writing, condensing the huge, generational story into something that feels both expansive and laser-focused on its subjects as people rather than symbols. The play’s long runtime, with two intermissions, means that it’s a big ask for the audience; the epic nature of the undertaking, though, creates its own excitement. There’s a slight slump in energy in the third section after the show necessarily diverges from the Lehman family as its main players, but overall it remains remarkably interesting and gripping the entire way through.

The way Massini elegantly weaves threads of metaphor, such as a tightrope walker over Wall Street, the brothers’ recurring dreams, and magic, confident smiles that lead to leaps of faith,  results in an immensely satisfying tapestry of motif. The comparisons of past and present generations add to the satisfaction of the experience, such as seeing the increasingly truncated ways in which the family mourns, or the reflection of Emmanuel and Henry’s tempestuous relationship in their descendants Philip and Herbert. There’s no wasted dialogue or narration; every character or idea that’s introduced, no matter how glancingly, has a purpose and importance to the story later on. The incredibly fast clip at which things move is breathtaking, the actors taking on a monumental job and the audience simply going along for the ride.

Pettle, Carlson, and Somerville all give phenomenal performances, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them battling it out for the Best Actor Dora next year. Collectively, they have a ton of difficult character and accent work to sift through: when the characters narrate directly to the audience, the accents disappear, only to reemerge as the they talk to each other. Then, accents shift as the characters become increasingly assimilated, speech inflected with Alabama and New York influences, only to disappear into New York entirely with the next generation. Pettle best nails the Yiddishkeit in the prayers and expressions, but everyone does a credible job; kudos to dialect coach Jane Gooderham and cultural consultants Diane Flacks and Miriam Borden.

As the sole actors playing dozens of characters, the dynamic trio are also fantastic at shifting character on a dime. Carlson’s change from the dignified, self-possessed Henry to the fast-talking confidence nebbish Philip is a wonder to behold, stopping the show briefly with a particularly rapid and virtuosic passage. Pettle’s portrayal of all of the children in a single Hebrew school class, followed by the portrayal of all the women on Philip’s “potential wife” list, is hysterically funny. And Somerville’s tough-guy moments, first as the tenacious Emmanuel and later as the polemical Herbert and crude stockbroker Lew Glucksman make him an impressively pugilistic plutocrat.

Philip Akin’s direction propels the action relentlessly forward; as soon as the Lehmans arrive in America and become acclimated to its pace, they never stop moving. When they travel to New York from the slower South, the pace only increases. He uses the large space of the Bluma Appel to full advantage, filling its centre with a giant wooden tower-cum-staircase by set designer Camellia Koo, made with sections of detachable boxes that hold (sometimes explosive) surprises, and where each Lehman’s suit jacket is tenderly placed upon his death. The men race up and down the boxes as they climb the ladder to success, changing the yellow and black Lehman Brothers sign to more accurately reflect their changing business.

In each act, Koo alters the set to mirror the increasing modernity of the times, with the second and third acts more able to use Steve Lucas’ boldly-coloured lighting design to full advantage. The base, though, is always formed by the towering boxes, a reminder of the brothers’ origin. The set echoes the recurring imagery in the brothers’ dreams and that of their sons and grandsons, which each involve the concept of an endless stack that tumbles or crushes their burgeoning potential for success.

The interesting thing about the Lehman Trilogy, probably to its credit for some audience members and detriment for others, is that for all its compelling writing, it doesn’t really have a point of view. It’s a document, at once sympathetic and distant, that chronicles individual men and their decisions, from the strident Herbert Lehman, who became a politician because he had a problem with the world’s inequalities, to the verbose Philip, obsessed with finding an answer to the problem of profit at all costs. It has so much story to tell that it doesn’t exactly settle on that story’s meaning, immersed in history but stripped of that history’s context.

If you’re expecting a rousing condemnation of what banks and investors do to rend the fabric of humanity, look elsewhere. As the last Lehman family member to run Lehman Brothers died in 1969, the last few decades of the company’s life are elided as a fast-paced dance, and there’s essentially nothing about how the company was complicit in the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s a portrait of a Jewish family that immigrated from a small town in Bavaria with nothing, that deals with the importance of the brothers’ culture, community and faith versus their descendants’ gradual assimilation, but which never in 150 years really touches on antisemitism in the United States or acknowledges its own potential to perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes. It even refers to the Holocaust’s devastation simply by noting that the faces of the desperately escaping European Jews who came to New York were different from the faces of ones born or established in America.

It deals movingly with the stock market crash and the suicides of the traders who saw it all come down, seeing no way out, but it leaves the audience to speculate on its own about the issues with that system in the first place, the demand for growth never satisfied that leads to a pattern of crashes. The almost magical quality of belief woven throughout the show as a recurring motif is beautiful when it leads the father of Mayer’s intended to take a chance on him as a son-in-law, less so when it leads to a devotion to such an unsustainable framework, but the script presents both in the same tone.

It tries to comment on the agency (or lack thereof) of the women in this dynasty, but in highlighting one or two notable women, it also highlights their general absence in the storytelling. While it is refreshing to give viewers a chance to draw their own conclusions, there are some points where a total lack of comment seems like a stance in its own right.

Perhaps most glaringly, it’s a play that effectively presents the wonder of picking the right card, the power of quick thinking and resilience through crises, and the admirable aspect of building an enormous empire with hard work and a dream—but one that doesn’t fully grapple with the fact that much of it was from others’ forced hard work: that the cotton trade that built this empire was one built on slavery and horror, and many of the same people who came into the brothers’ shop in Alabama because it was the only one open on Sundays had no rights as human beings.

Akin’s production, however, sees this potential issue in the script, and never lets us forget. At the base of the financial Tower of Babel, there’s a haunting image constantly on display. No matter how modern the tower gets, between its two bottom platforms lie pair after pair of disturbingly realistic feet, constantly reminding us of the human cost of the climb above. Who is crushed underneath as we chase the American dream?

The head, the arm, and even the potato never see the feet below.

Photo of Graeme Somerville, Ben Carlson, and Jordan Pettle by Dahlia Katz

BroadwayWorld Awards Voting


Review: WITHROW PARK at Tarragon Theatre Photo
Review: WITHROW PARK at Tarragon Theatre

In WITHROW PARK, Morris Panych’s new play at Tarragon Theatre, we see a view into a neighbourhood a little less than 7 kilometres away from where we sit. Panych’s script is quippy and fun with a philosophical bent about aging, mortality, and the ability to start again at any point, but just like its characters, finds it hard to achieve balance between those two states.

Review: AINT TOO PROUD at Ed Mirvish Theatre Photo
Review: AIN'T TOO PROUD at Ed Mirvish Theatre

Ain't Too Proud, playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre for a limited engagement, brings the life and times of Motown's finest, The Temptations, to the Toronto stage in a toe-tapping 'Behind the Music'-style spectacular that will leave audiences jaw-dropped.

Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre Photo
Review: CHRIS, MRS. at Winter Garden Theatre

CHRIS, MRS., bills itself as a musical version of a Hallmark holiday movie, and it does exactly—and I mean exactly—what it says on the tin. If you are a lover of Hallmark family entertainment, you’ll be over the moon for this show. It boasts entertaining lyrics, killer dance moves, adorable children, and a quirky, can-do spirt. That also means that it has ALL the parts of a Hallmark movie, for better or for worse.

Nancy Webster to Step Down as Executive Director of Young Peoples Theatre Photo
Nancy Webster to Step Down as Executive Director of Young People's Theatre

Young People’s Theatre has announced that Nancy Webster will step down as Executive Director at the end of the 2023.24 season, after more than 15 years of extraordinary leadership.

From This Author - Ilana Lucas

Ilana Lucas is an English professor at Toronto’s Centennial College. She holds a BA in English and Theatre from Princeton University, and an MFA in Dramaturgy and Script Development from Columbi... Ilana Lucas">(read more about this author)


Blake and Clay's Gay Agenda in Toronto Blake and Clay's Gay Agenda
The Assembly Theatre (12/27-12/30)
Les Miserables in Toronto Les Miserables
Princess of Wales Theatre (3/26-6/01)
The Government Inspector in Toronto The Government Inspector
Papermill Theatre (12/20-12/23)
Hypothetical Baby in Toronto Hypothetical Baby
Tarragon Theatre (12/08-12/17)
SwordPlay: A Play of Swords in Toronto SwordPlay: A Play of Swords
The Assembly Theatre (12/16-12/22)
TSO Holiday Pops in Toronto TSO Holiday Pops
Toronto Symphony Orchestra (12/11-12/13)
Handel Messiah in Toronto Handel Messiah
Tafelmusik (12/14-12/16)
The House at Poe Corner in Toronto The House at Poe Corner
Red Sandcastle (4/11-4/21)
Universal Child Care in Toronto Universal Child Care
Canadian Stage (2/13-2/25)
Pollyanna the Musical in Toronto Pollyanna the Musical
Theatre Aquarius (12/06-12/23)

Recommended For You