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  • Scott Carter Cooper

The Lehman Trilogy

I’m afraid one of my lifelong dreams that will likely never be fulfilled is regular, leisurely theatre trips to London. I’d love to see every production at the RSC, and The Globe. Better yet, I’d love to part of the cadre of artists who just casually put their work up at The National. Thankfully, the Brits have figured out all of the legal nuances of recording and broadcasting their productions. God, I love the work at The National! While my heart and soul lives in Chicago storefront theatre, and I’m happily dazzled with occasional trips to Broadway, English theatre is my idea of Nirvana.

So, on my recent NYC/Broadway trip there was absolutely no way I was going to miss The Lehman Trilogy. Although the last thing we need is another homage to white men who figured out a way to get rich, (see Hamilton) I rationalized a ticket with the argument that this was an English take on an Italian telling of the story of three American brothers who first created the modern financial system and then were destroyed by it. Plus, I’m a huge Simon Russell Beale and Adrian Lester fan. I’d never heard of Adam Goodley but was eagerly looking forward to being educated. Beyond what I’ve described above, I knew nothing of what to expect from this production.

Originally clocking in at five and a half hours, Broadway brought a scaled back production in at three hours and fifteen minutes. Three actors portray all of the speaking parts, with a dozen non-speaking actors forming a final tableau. I’d love to have the confidence to write something that required so much of an audience’s time, but to date haven’t had the guts. I’m thinking of a couple of possible adaptations, but the list of things I want to write reaches from Chicago to London, so…

The Lehman Trilogy is playing at The Nederlander Theatre, which holds a certain irony. A generation ago, this theatre, the southern-most of the Broadway collection, was derelict and in decay. It was brought back to life by a modest little show about poverty you may have heard of called Rent. Today the theatre radiates life, and you can almost hear the echoes of the historic premieres of The Little Foxes and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

My favorite place to sit in a Broadway house is the last row of the balcony. Not only for economic reasons, but being a frequent storefront audience member where the action is inches away, I want to feel the spectacle reach me from a distance. The difference between American actors and British actors on the stage is feeling of ease. These three actors just felt like they were born on the stage. Beale in particular sent a level of nuance to the back row of the balcony with a simple cock of the head. American Broadway actors are fabulous, and I saw some incredible performances on this trip, but there’s an undercurrent of effort, a whisper of approval seeking, that the Brits don’t have.

The play is written to be a tour de force for three actors but being Broadway there must be a level of spectacle. The set is a generic office/conference room that spins surrounded by projection screens, but most of the action is played on file boxes that the actors reconfigure as needed. The costumes are basic black.

The pace of the production is necessarily brisk, not just for the amount of time it covers but because the script breaks the first rule of theatre. It tells us everything and shows very little. Lesser actors would make this a deadly afternoon in the theatre, but this cast demands all of the superlatives that can be hurled in their direction. Adam Goodley will doubtless be nominated for a Tony and a very strong possibility Beale will be as well. If Adrian Lester is overlooked it’s likely because he’s only been with the production for a short while, but his work is top notch. Goodley and Beale have been with the English version of this script for four years.

There was much to respect about this production and many elements to love, but not for the last time on this trip I can say I saw a play that really belongs in a Chicago storefront more than it does in a Broadway house. I’m looking forward to the ambitious little theatre that tackles this script and can’t wait to see that inevitable triumph.

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