THE LEHMAN TRILOGY At The Phoenix Theatre Company

The original Lehman Brothers, Meyer (Michael Kary), Henry (Josh Clark), and Emanuel (Michael Stewart Allen), pictured in front of the stock market boards, a major source of their wealth. (Photo Credit: Brennen Russell)
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A most unique and enjoyable production of the critically-acclaimed The Lehman Trilogy opened at The Phoenix Company this past Friday. On its surface, it is an intimate look at an immigrant family adapting to radical changes that are taking place in some of the most turbulent times of American history. Take a step back, and it is a chronicle of the transformation of the U.S. economy from agriculture to industry to finance.

Changes to the business take Emanuel Lehman (Michael Stewart Allen) by surprise. (Photo Credit: Billy Hardiman)

Most people know — or knew, and have already forgotten — that the Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed in 2008, along with dozens of other financial institutions during the worst financial crisis of the current century. But the whole story of the Lehman Brothers, as an institution, actually began in 1850, with Henry, Emanuel, and Mayer Lehman. Over the course of several years, the three brothers migrated from Bavaria to the United States and built a business in the pre-Civil War South, entrenching themselves in the cotton industry.

The Lehman Trilogy is a cleverly crafted three-character production that melds poetic narrative, polished, professional acting, and creative theatrical devices with singular precision. How else does one explain the clever and seamless transitions that occur as on-stage performers segue between narrators and multiple characters before our very eyes in a way that is both believable and fascinating to watch? There are in fact, no less than a dozen (we stopped counting at 15!) characters that are being played by the incomparable acting trio of Josh Clark, Michael Stewart Allen, and Michael Kary.

Michael Stewart Allen as Emanuel Lehman. (Photo Credit: Brennen Russel)
Josh Clark as Henry Lehman. (Photo Credit: Brennen Russel)
Michael Kary as Meyer Lehman. (Photo Credit: Brennen Russel)

Initially, we are introduced to Henry Lehman (played by Josh Clark), then brother Emanuel (Michael Stewart Allen), and finally, youngest sibling, Mayer (Michael Kary). Each has a unique personality that both complements and grates on the other two. Still, there exists a fraternal symbiosis among the brothers that allows them to persevere in the wake of the collapse of the cotton industry, and the changing needs of an industrial society. They, and their progeny, prove the Lehman family’s apparently inborn adaptability time and time again, transitioning from commodity products, to transportation networks, to corporate finance.

The three actors play various characters through the years, including three generations of Lehmans. (Photo credit: Billy Hardiman)

Over the course of this family chronicle, Messrs. Clark, Allen, and Kary bear the full weight of the production, swapping mannerisms, accents, and even gender in a sometimes amusing but always fascinating tour de force of multi-character portrayals. Each performer brings a unique personality to their characterizations. Clark (primarily as Henry) is distinguished and fatherly, yet manages to pull off both a slick, twangy, Alabama hustler, and an astutely precocious 14-year-old. Allen (primarily as Emanuel) comes off as stern and dignified — an overachieving middle child who sometimes stands in the shadow of his older brother. Contrast that with his turn as a three-year-old toddler sitting on the lap of his father, tugging at his beard. Kary (primarily as Mayer) plays the affable peacemaker to his two bickering older brothers. He exudes a certain calm and level-headedness as Mayer. Moments later he is charmingly aloof Pauline Sondheim, toying with the emotions of suiter, Emanuel.

Thus do three generations of Lehmans, and all supporting characters, pass before us. There are no costume changes and no musical interludes. The story and the performances drive this decades-long saga, encapsulated into three hours of tightly-directed, thoroughly engaging, masterfully executed theatrical performance. We are swept up in the production so easily, that the time we spend being engaged by it is fleeting. Indeed, there is some irony that we witness compressed time on stage, only to find real time similarly compressed. Three hours later, we are wanting more.

Emanuel (Michael Stewart Allen), Henry (Josh Clark), and Meyer (Michael Kary) mourn the demise of their business with a Jewish prayer. (Photo Credit: Billy Hardiman)

Due credit must be given to Stefano Messini, who crafted the original five-hour version — in Italian, no less — and Ben Power, who adapted it to the English language theatrical version. Stephen Gifford’s scenic design manages to combine authentic period style pieces with an almost futuristic, industrial palette that is at once both austere and exotic. Kudos to director Rod Kaats for recognizing both the limitations and the opportunities of such a set design. The Phoenix Theatre Company continues to demonstrate its commitment to quality theatre as well as its ability to bring together the caliber of talent that produces consistently outstanding productions.

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About Joe Gruberman 47 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

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