“The Lehman Trilogy” closed at the Park Avenue Armory on April 20. This acclaimed European play by Stefano Massini, a renowned Italian educated in a Jewish school, was adapted by Ben Power for the National Theatre. In July 2018, this awestruck author sat through three-plus hours of a London preview, as she did during the Armory’s New York run. The upcoming West End version of this unparalleled and magnificent play may differ somewhat, but surely will be a saga, replete with tragedy, triumphs, pathos and humor, which resonates with Jewish history.
Much of the Lehmans’ odyssey parallels that of American Jewry. Hayum, Mendel and Mayer Lehman arrived here from Bavaria in the mid-1800s as religious outsiders, settled in Montgomery, Alabama, and changed their names to Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emanuel (Ben Miles) and Mayer (Adam Godley). They were Shomer Shabbos v’Yom Tov, uttered Baruch Hashem frequently, davened shacharis before work, struggled in fields permitted to them, achieved unprecedented success, experienced challenges and emerged even stronger and suddenly the family firm they established but no longer controlled went into freefall and collapsed, triggering a global crisis only exceeded by the Great Depression. We all know the 2008 story, up close and personal.
The play weaves a tapestry of Lehman Brothers that echoes Diaspora Jewish history, in which Jews, like the moon, have waxed and waned. Yet no matter how frequently the tapestry’s pattern has been repeated, Jews have often lost sight of it. It is no surprise that the Lehman family sped down a path of cultural and religious assimilation. The religious freedom Jews experienced in the U.S., as opposed to their restrictive existence in Europe and elsewhere, set that in motion. In contrast, though (and my own sojourns confirmed this), even secular European Jews developed more finely-tuned antennae than their U.S. brethren concerning their precarious existence.
I once attended a University of London conference on the challenge of affluence. Affluence—a challenge? Don’t we all aspire to do well, and better than our peers? Surely the Lehmans did. The impact of affluence and assimilation is the cautionary part of the Lehman epic. Henry, Emanuel and Mayer, but especially their descendants, were caught between their religious practices, desire for prosperity and struggle for acceptance in the broader society. Their heirs’ connection to Jewish rituals was a casualty of the brothers’ success. Their world shifted from one in which shiva was strictly observed to one of business as usual, where shiva lasted three minutes. This was symptomatic of a gradual disintegration of fundamental Jewish rituals and belief. Eventually younger Lehmans edged their elders (and their wisdom) out of decision making, and their offices. It is ironic that Emanuel (“the only one who remembers Germany and he carries it on his shoulder—into the 20th century”) and Mayer were brushed aside by an amorphous board oblivious to the Lehman legacy and devoid of the values, faith, and ethos that bound together the founding brothers.
The Lehmans’ path to market dominance included the South of slavery. The play skirts over the brothers’ engagement with that heinous system, the Lehman bank’s role in a corrupt Reconstruction, and consequent civil rights abuses. In one sense, the Lehmans’ move to New York extricated them from this, yet they still had a sizable stake in Southern finances. There is no explanation or remorse for their role in Reconstruction.
As the family settled into affluent New York German-Jewish circles in the late 19th century and their investments moved from cotton to coffee and other commodities, industries, construction (Panama Canal), and banking per se, they continued their charitable work, yet became increasingly detached from their religious roots and their co-religionists from Eastern Europe, many of whom settled on the Lower East Side. The divide that grew between Jews is an underdeveloped backstory, one hinted at when the younger Lehmans comment on the stream of Shoah survivors (“You recognize them by the way they sit in the Temple”). This is a nod to the post-Holocaust years, and how the survivors contrasted with the well-positioned and thoroughly Americanized Lehmans. It circumvents the century-plus in which well-established New York German Jews looked askance at their largely Yiddish-speaking, more observant and less urbane co-religionists from the East, and situates class divisions peripherally, within a larger story. Given the play’s length, this backstory must occupy another forum.
The play’s front-of-mind story is substantive, beautifully conceived, magically crafted and superbly executed on a revolving 800-square foot steel-framed glass cube. This is the stage on which successive generations of Lehmans display their personal and financial acumen. It has the sparsest set of props imaginable: multipurpose stackable cardboard boxes representing goods, records, towers of success and crashing dreams; a black marker or two that creates signage for the Lehman’s evolving enterprises,; and flowers in a vase recycled for various courtships. A lone piano player’s poignant tunes underscore the entire saga and “Raisins and Almonds” (Rozhinkes mit Mandlen) complements the script.
The changes from the London show to the Armory one are subtle but very meaningful: a somewhat scaled-down set; a deeper, more resonant, more passionate Kaddish than before; a twisting set of Lehman Brothers, in an accelerating, writhing symphony in which Bobby, the remaining Lehman on the board, twists until he collapses; a change in pronunciation between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Hebrew (which rings truer to German Jews); and modifications in backdrops. These minor adjustments ring true for audiences on both sides of The Pond, who witness economy of setting, movement and undoubtedly, three of the U.K.’s finest living actors. Beale’s, Miles’ and Godley’s male/female characters are alternately pious, coy, charming, funny and ruthless. The men move from one identity to another, gracefully and seamlessly, without even a costume change.
Simon Russell Beale (Henry) can speak volumes with a flick of his wrist, and then morph into an entirely different character by changing his pose, expression, posture (Rabbi Lewisohn) or tiny spectacles. The latter he dons as Philip, the first Lehman who is totally American, and whose pragmatism leaves little time for or interest in the spiritual inclinations of his father and uncle. Adam Godley (Mayer), to whom his brothers jokingly refer as “spud,” as in potato head, is also a fetching coquette and a card shark. Ben Miles (Emanuel and Herbert Lehman, Lewis Glucksman and others) is riveting in his intensity and conviction.
Herbert Lehman, who leaves finance to champion social justice and humanitarianism, is too briefly depicted as a quiet but highly effective politician. One wonders why the script minimally showcases his prodigious accomplishments when he serves as a foil to the Lehmans focused on acquisition. As the Lehmans’ affluence and power reach their apex, Herbert stands opposite Cousin Bobby (“If Bobby Lehman wants risk, Herbert wants responsibility”). This limitation is a function of the script and not Miles’ impeccable acting.
Critics bemoaned that the play ends without tackling Lehman Brothers’ 2008 collapse, but they are missing the point. Everything that leads up to that fateful phone call, signaling the firm’s shutdown, is what really matters. The “evils of capitalism” is not the underlying theme, as many would posit. The tragedy here is about what deteriorates when affluence and assimilation together prevail—tradition, Jewish values, rituals, all of which compromise family bonds. No one, not even the Lehmans, can have it all.
If you are traveling to London, and can still buy a ticket, this show is a must. If not, wait, and daven, for its return. You see, it’s much closer to home than any of us might want to admit.
By Rachel S. Kovacs
Rachel Kovacs is an adjunct associate professor of communication at CUNY, and a freelance writer and public relations practitioner.