Stefano Massini’s remarkable drama The Lehman Trilogy (2012) examines two subjects that have become preoccupations in academia: how did American capitalism launch itself, and what role did slavery play?

Since Massini is a dramatist, one might think that his consideration of the matter would be guided by the impulses of the theater: melodrama and histrionics, grandiosity mixed with appeals to the gallery, indifference to logic matched to a taste for vulgar spectacle. Yet, ironically, this is how our universities treat these topics. Massini’s version is restrained, thoughtful, and judicious.

The result is an exceptional play, now on the stage at the Park Avenue Armory in a production that renders its text better than any I have seen. The British director Sam Mendes, using a version of the play that was adapted by Ben Power from Massini’s five-hour Italian radio drama, has the theatrical equivalent of perfect pitch. From the stage designer Es Devlin’s elegant rotating set of a contemporary glass office, to Luke Halls’s imaginative back projections, to the three-person cast, there is nothing that isn’t superb.

Simon Russell Beale. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

What may be most surprising is the absence of cant in the play. This restraint places it in opposition to the Ivory Tower. For there may be no historian in academia who is more widely admired right now than Sven Beckert, the Harvard professor who invented the term “war capitalism.” According to a review of Beckert’s book Empire of Cotton (2014), the rise of global capitalism “depended on the militarization of trade, massive land expropriation, genocide and slavery . . . the use of armed force by European states to reconfigure the world’s cotton industry was a precondition for the industrial revolution.”

As the story moves forward, Massini shows how the forces driving the firm’s growth—energy that would relocate it to New York—were part of a larger phenomenon.

But this theory is a little like claiming that Lebron James became a basketball prodigy because of the instruction that he received in utero. The great rise of Northern industry took place after the Southern slave economy was destroyed and after the Confederacy’s wealth was obliterated.

Massini is Beckert’s opposite. He has enormous wit and humor and huge intellectual ambition. And he is not in bondage to dogmatism. When he read about the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in 2008, he was intrigued, and he began researching the firm’s history and the German-Jewish family that founded it. But, as a member of the tribe himself, he felt a measure of sympathy for the Lehmans.

His story begins with the arrival of the family patriarch, Heyum Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), in New York. The play next takes us to Montgomery, Alabama. There Heyum, renamed Henry, and his brothers Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emanuel (Ben Miles), are switching from selling paint and cloth to taking on the roles of financial middlemen. In the process, they create a hugely successful cotton trading firm. The play frankly acknowledges the cruelty and injustice upon which the plantation system was based. But Massini is not an anti-capitalist, and he recognizes that the Lehmans’ earnings derived from their own value as financial intermediaries. As the story moves forward, Massini shows how the forces driving the firm’s growth—energy that would relocate it to New York—were part of a larger phenomenon, one which would propel the Lehmans into many other businesses, from trading coffee to backing railroads and computer companies.

Simply put, Massini is an intellectual heretic. Nowhere does he show this lack of the liberal academic faith more than in his treatment of religion. For he regards it with respect. Indeed, in his recounting of the Lehman saga, there is an element of Deuteronomy. Prosperity is shown as the handmaiden of devotion. In the show’s third act, Massini even implies that Herbert Lehman, New York’s New Deal governor and an heir to the family fortune, was a purveyor of mischief in his dogged promotion of enhanced financial regulation and Reform (not Orthodox) Judaism.

The best part of the production may be its three-person cast. They are astonishing.

Massini presents this epic narrative with a keen sense for poetic imagery. Thus, in each generation a member of the Lehman family anticipates an important change through a recurrent dream, which he must interpret. Massini also makes even his secondary characters, like Robert Lehman’s louche wife, Ruth, and a bumptious Reconstruction governor of Alabama, memorable. The Lehman Trilogy has both great heft and vast imagination.

Even so, I do not think it is a given that the drama will prove to be enduring. Because I do not know Massini’s original text, I can only judge the English-language version, which is as heavily narrated by its characters as it is dramatized. The combination of a reliance upon telling us what’s happening in place of depicting the action and the diffuse nature of the plot makes for a presentation that is consistently absorbing but never riveting, and often magnificent without ever being deeply moving.

The best part of the production may be its three-person cast. They are astonishing. Taking on dozens of parts and accents and commenting on everything that happens on stage, they display staggering range and skill, along with enormous humanity and vulnerability.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley. Photo: Mark Douet.

Mendes keeps the company in constant motion, and he uses an assortment of beloved classical music pieces, played by the pianist Candida Caldicot, to underscore the action. The result is a rare, extraordinary theatrical event: poetic and funny, brilliant and expansive. Rarest of all, it is a drama about business that is both appreciative and truthful.

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