In the beginning, there is nothing. And in the end, there is — nothing, once again.
Such is the way of all flesh, no? And, since the subject here is the accumulation of money, let’s say the way of all cash, too. But in this case, out of nothing there emerges such a heaving ferment of aspiration, energy, tenacity and audacity that you’re left reeling by the scope and vitality of it all.
That, in essence, is what the magnificent play “The Lehman Trilogy,” at the Park Avenue Armory, both is about and, more important, simply is. This genuinely epic production out of London, directed with surging sweep and fine-tooled precision by Sam Mendes, charts the history of the financial institution that would come to be known as Lehman Brothers, from its humble origins to its epical implosion, over a span of three centuries and many generations.
The script by the Italian playwright Stefano Massini, exquisitely adapted into English by Ben Power, follows the blossoming of a small Alabama clothing store in the 1840s, founded by three immigrant brothers from Bavaria, into an international powerhouse of the stock exchange, before its world-rattling collapse in 2008.
What is wrought by those three original brothers and their descendants is impressive, for sure, as they redefine the nature of getting and spending in the United States, while accumulating unbounded personal wealth.
But for my money (you should pardon the expression), what’s really thrilling here is the parallel accomplishment of this show’s creators, who have conjured not only the play’s leading merchants and their kin but also entire cities, nations and the rush of history that keeps sweeping them onward and outward, toward oblivion. This is achieved, as a tale of such scope must be, with a cast of hundreds — possibly, thousands.
And they are all embodied by a mere three actors: Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley, singular looking men who turn out to contain multitudes. (Oh, in the shadows, you might spot a pianist — Candida Caldicot — whose music seems to originate in your own brain.) Under the inspired direction of Mr. Mendes, with a design team that understands the value of simplicity in doing justice to complex matters, “The Lehman Trilogy” unfolds a tale of extravagant wealth with an even more dazzling economy of means.
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The three-hour-plus version first staged at London’s National Theater, where I saw it last summer, is roughly half the length of those earlier productions in Paris and Milan. As for its set, designed by the remarkable Es Devlin, it doesn’t appear to be much more than an outsize glass box, minimally furnished with the remnants of some sleek office furniture and packing crates.
Yet five minutes into the production, you feel you have somehow already traveled vast distances. For in the middle of this glaring and barren modernity, there steps an anachronistic silhouette, a figure in a severe black suit who might have come from a faded daguerreotype. (Katrina Lindsay is the costume designer.)
This is Henry Lehman, a young man from Bavaria, who has just set foot on American soil for the first time. As brought to life by Mr. Beale, one of the finest classical actors alive, Henry is radiant with astonishment, trepidation and a sense of infinite possibilities. His name has already been changed (from Heyum) by a New York customs official; the journey of endlessly becoming, reflecting that of millions of arrivals to the United States then and now, has begun.
It’s a moment that will feel achingly familiar to anyone who ever arrived in New York from somewhere else to be someone else. It registers as so deeply personal that it may take you a moment to realize that Mr. Beale, as Henry, is speaking in the third person, not the first.
And how he and his fellow actors speak has the resonance of a work by Homer or Virgil, in which specific acts and thoughts are always juxtaposed against a sense of eternity — of time past, present and to come. Here is how Henry concludes the beginning of that opening scene:
“He took a deep breath, picked up his suitcase and walking quickly, despite not knowing where to go, like so many others he stepped into the magical music box called America.” And by then, you have a sensory grasp of just what that world is.
This is partly the result of the delicate use of light (Jon Clark), sound and music (by Nick Powell) and melting videos (by Luke Halls) that stretch teasingly across a cyclorama at the back of the stage. But above all, it is the words and the men speaking them that allow us to know uncannily and exactly where we are and who we’re dealing with.
Mr. Power’s adaptation is filled with rhythmic repetitions, descriptions of recurrent dreams that seem realer than life and linked images that expand and mutate in the telling. Even the many enumerations in the script — of prices and profits and their endless dangling zeros — assume an incantatory lyricism. This is appropriate to a play in which a specific reality is always shaped by the changing mythology of those who inhabit it.
For a religious impulse informs everything that happens. This is most literally evident in the rites of prayer and mourning observed by Henry and the two younger brothers who join him in Alabama, Emanuel (Mr. Miles, Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Wolf Hall”) and Meyer (Mr. Godley).
As their story continues, and the Lehman business moves to New York after the Civil War, those rites, too, will evolve and eventually all but disappear. For like so many American stories that span generations, “The Lehman Trilogy” is a progress of deracination.
At the same time, another kind of rootlessness is being traced. This one is economic. Against a New York that moves from the Gilded Age into the frenzied ’20s, from the Great Depression into the postwar boom of acquisition and beyond, the goods in which the brothers and their descendants traffic become increasingly abstract.
From traders in cotton and coffee — and railroads and tobacco — they become “merchants of money.” And as the firm shifts from banking into the more nebulous ether of high finance, money turns into something intangible, with a mighty but tenuous existence all its own — and ever increased potential to evaporate altogether.
These heady considerations, from the financial and the ontological, are grounded in three of the most virtuosic performances you’re ever likely to see. As they switch among genders, ages and nationalities of their countless characters each actor has his bravura moments.
But, under the supervision of Mr. Mendes (whose command of stagecraft is also on view in the Broadway hit “The Ferryman”), each is also, always the original Lehman brother he first portrays. It is those voices — the sound of history itself — that enfold the particularly rendered scenes of courtship and acquisition, of growing older and dying.
These multifarious beings aren’t all talk, by any means. Those packing crates are enlisted to build walls of stores and institutions, and to be piled into the toppling, smothering towers that haunt the brothers’ nightmares. The glass walls are scrawled upon in marker with names and numbers, and are then wiped clean, leaving barely discernible smudges as reminders of who and what came before.
Not that audiences are likely to forget what they’ve seen. The real magic of “The Lehman Trilogy” has nothing to do with numbers. It’s the miracle of three men, on a nearly naked stage, resurrecting vanished lives and worlds, leaving an oddly indelible afterglow in that final fade into darkness.
The Lehman Trilogy
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