Review: The Lehman Trilogy by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs


The Lehman Trilogy is an undeniable tour de force delivered by its three actors Peter Frechette, Susan Lynskey, and Nick Lawson, whose energy, stamina, and precision make the production's three acts and more than three hours fly by with blinding speed. The production itself will fly by, as well, for it's scheduled for a run of only three weeks, from June 19 to July 7, a realistic programming decision for a work this intense, eloquent, and cerebral, quite unlike Zach Theatre's many more comfortable entertainments (for example, Beautiful, the Carol King musical, will run twice as long). 


Based on an epic poem by Italian author Stefano Massimi, the work premiered in French translation in a five-hour version. The far shorter English-language version translated by Mirella Cheeseman and reworked by Ben Power debuted at the National Theatre in London in 2018. It toured briefly to New York, returned to London, and an announced New York return was suspended because of the COVID pandemic. When it reopened there, it won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Play. A touring production recently visited Sydney and San Francisco; a Chicago production by Timeline Theatre is the only regional production listed online.


By selecting and directing this work, Zach Theatre Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley has made the bold choice to stage a work that stretches the boundaries of theatrical storytelling and challenges audiences to devote close attention to an eloquently poetic work delivered with the shape-shifting thespian dexterity of bardic verse.


Peter Frechette, Susan Lynskey, Nick Lawson (photo by Susan Cordeiro)


In shape if not in substance, it resembles Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks, a story of multiple generations of a wealthy merchant family. The three Lehmann brothers, immigrants from Bavaria, did not start out rich, however; Henry, the eldest and the first to arrive in the United States, stepped ashore in 1844. He went into trade, eventually opening a drygoods shop in a shabby building in Montgomery, Alabama, where his brothers Mayer and Emanuel joined him. Author Massimo makes them slightly comic: Henry the head, Mayer the arm, and Emanuel, the youngest, a "potato." They are practicing Jews, a fact that apparently bothered no one in mid-19th-century Alabama. With grit and initiative they gradually became the middlemen between cotton plantations and the northern textile mills. The growth of that trade from four Alabama plantations to some twenty scattered all across the south is described in vivid, suspenseful detail, and the playwright would have you believe that the brothers grew rich by inventing themselves as the world's first middlemen.


Peter Frechette (photo by Susan Cordeiro)That's a stretch. Arbitrage of all sorts has existed since agriculture and trade were invented. But it's a good story, embellished with many details of the founding brothers' lives, and illustrated by the progressive amendments of the signs hung on the business, always in yellow lettering on black background. Cotton arbitrage between producers and a single northern mill owner prompts one brother to visit New York, where he finds many takers and comes close to cornering the market. But catastrophe in the form of the war between the states intervenes, and the canny Lehmans see opportunity instead of disaster, for they transform their concern into a bank to administer and direct reconstruction of the smouldering south.


(photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


This and subsequent transformations of the Lehman brothers' firm take place on an almost empty stage, though your memory will not recall it as such. Chicago-linked scenic designer Sotirios Livaditis, who has a list of credits longer than both your arms, is new to the Zach Theatre, and his execution of the design agreed with Steakley is brilliant. That broad, deep Zach Theatre stage is rendered as a floor-to-ceiling bank vault offering a wealth of hidden spaces and a field for surprise lighting designs. Onstage furnishings are limited to starkly simple furniture, two tall rolling metal staircases, and a supply of cardboard bankers' boxes and long rectangular cartons like those that equip safety deposit vaults. Plus, of course, the succession of simple painted signs that depicts the progression of the firm's development.


Generations of Lehmans, their counterparts, their clients, their families, and their competitors figure in this story, and one can only marvel at the chameleon abilities of these three gifted Equity actors, all making their Zach debuts. Of them, only heavily bearded Nick Lawson as Emanuel (the "arm") appears rooted in Central Texas, not least because he's married to Cassie Abate, busy choreographer in the region and head of the musical theatre at Texas State University in San Marcos.


Peter Frechette, Susan Lynskey, Nick Lawson (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


One of the pleasures of watching these pros at work is seeing how they transform themselves from character to character and gender to gender. For example, Susan Lynskey makes "potato" Mayer, the youngest of the founders, meek but brilliant and diplomatic in the first act. Later in the evening she becomes cold-blooded, equally brilliant Bobby Lehman, wearing tinted glasses, an unerring perceiver of opportunity and architect of transformation. Peter Frechette as Henry (the "head") is an autocrat not to be gainsaid in Act One and becomes the hungry divorcée who latches onto Bobby, only eventually to find that stress and the business of preserving the firm through the stock market crash and the depression have consumed him. Susan Branch Towne's costumes are tailored black suits throughout, even when a reference is made in the story to Bobby's "white suit." The effect is to emphasize the prowess of the actors, just as the nearly empty stage serves as a nearly bare space of imagination where anything can take place.


Peter Frechette, Nick Lawson, Susan Lynskey (photo by Suzanne Cordeiro)


The Jewish heritage of the Lehmans is present, acknowleged, and not accused or decried; the rite of sitting Shiva after the death of each Lehman persists, although with the passage of time between 1844 and the 1980's, the duration diminishes from a week of desolate mourning to three minutes of silence at the trading house. Austin's self-taught Mazel Tov Kocktail Hour Quartet provides pre-show bar music and incidental music to mark shifts of scene (in this speeding vehicle of a production there is no downtime for them to fill). 


Drew Lichtenberg's essay "Three Ways of Looking at The Lehman Trilogy" in the production's program encapsulates the history to be portrayed and also offers insightful commentary on the playwright's views on a capitalist economy and on assimilation into U.S. secular culture. Click on the link below for his thoughts and much more information about the production. There's a genealogical chart of the Lehman family posted in the theatre lobby along with commentary; that information should have been included in the program.


The first two acts are fine storytelling, much of which is likely to be new to you. The third act is shot through with cursory, caricatured business developments and a disdain for the sweeping transformations of European and American economies since the 1950's. It's suggested that after the last Lehman died, the firm was sold off to the corrupt and unscrupulous. Playwright Massimo and the adapters imply that the development of international capital markets facilitated by the invention of digital technology has been a disaster for human dignity and humane values. Worse than that is the fact that they rob the audience of the climax and dénouement it's owed after more than three hours of involvement with these characters. The final scene shows the ghosts of the three founding Lehman brothers reciting Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, around a telephone on September 15, 2008. The date and event are not explained except in the final paragraph of Lichtenberg's essay (and how many in the house were diligent enough to read all the way through and retain that information?). Even older millenials are unlikely to be aware of that meltdown of financial markets sixteen years ago; and as we exited the theatre at 11 p.m. that evening, I heard someone much older than that complaining about the unexplained ending.



Click to view the Zach Theatre program for The Lehman Trilogy




The Lehman Trilogy
by Stefano Massini
Zach Theatre

June 19 - July 07, 2024
Zach Theatre
1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704

June 19 - July 7, 2024

Wednesdays - Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Topfer mainstage, Zach Theatre

Click HERE for ticketing page
$25 - $100

Pay-What-You-Will - Begins Tuesday, June 18 for the shows until Sunday, June 23
PRIDE Night - Thursday, June 20 at 7:30 p.m.
Champagne Opening - Thursday, June 27 at 7:30 p.m.
ASL/Open Captioned - Saturday, July 6 at 2:30 p.m.
All sales are final but exchanges are allowed for a small per-ticket fee
Children under 3 are not permitted, unless otherwise indicated