Review: Gripping ‘Lehman Trilogy’ exposes merciless world of Wall Street

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Kevin Berne/American Conservatory Theatre From left, John Heffernan, Howard W. Overshown and and Aaron Krohn star in “The Lehman Trilogy” for American Conservatory Theater.

The global economy is a runaway train barreling right into you and there’s nowhere to go but into the roar.

The evolution of the global stock market spins into being before our eyes in “The Lehman Trilogy,” a thrilling and trenchant financial drama that rides the roller coaster of the American economy as the Lehman brothers go from hawking cotton to helping carry the U.S. economy to the brink of collapse.

The monetary instruments they trade grow ever more sophisticated but the greed-is-good mantra never changes — from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

Of course, every once in a while, the unchained pursuit of wealth upends our entire society. Stockbrokers jump off skyscrapers and homeowners lose the roofs over their heads but eventually the engine of big business revs up again and whirs faster than it did before. From the Great Depression or the Subprime Meltdown of 2008, one takeaway stays true: The poorest are usually the hardest hit while the richest often prosper.

“The Lehman Trilogy,” in its electric regional premiere at American Conservatory Theater, directed by the famed Sam Mendes, traces the birth of this financial empire from cotton fields and the slave trade to the time of digital day traders raiding the globe for profits with explosive results.

While it’s not as emotionally ferocious as some of Mendes’ previous musings on the dark side of materialism, such as “American Beauty,” the smarts, craft and ambition of this theatrical epic are undeniable.

The characters here are not as particularly compelling, especially in the first act, which is heavy on exposition. But the play builds momentum as it goes until it sweeps you away with its sheer theatrical audacity and intellectual daring.

British playwright Ben Power distills Stefano Massini’s 720-page novel into a 3½-hour production with three actors. The ensemble, John Heffernan, Howard W. Overshown and Aaron Krohn, is virtuosic, sculpting performances so rich and varied and surprising that you forget it’s the same three men all the time.

Shot through with nifty metaphors — from a tightrope walker to a sleight-of-hand card game — Lehman” examines the arc of a family business across 163 years of history, politics and culture, during which everything changed except the religion of consumption.

As one slick marketing guru puts it, he gets people to pay money they don’t have for things they don’t need. Best of all, people love buying things so much they will base their identity on your brand.

Oscar- and Tony-winner Mendes choreographs the production so tightly it’s like a ballet, each move speaking volumes. The kinetic set (Es Devlin) is a revolving box of glass and steel, framed by ethereal projections (Luke Halls) that capture the flow of history, the steel towers of New York giving way to the ones and zeros of the tech gold rush. Cardboard boxes and other minimal props punctuate the minimalism of Mendes’ aesthetic.

The trick of the piece is that the only character that truly matters is capitalism itself. It’s not just part of the environment of this narrative. It is the protagonist, speeding along faster and faster until it caroms into something or someone with a spectacular crash.

There may be flaws here, the female figures get short shrift and the Shylock overtones might unsettle, but the staging remains utterly gobsmacking.
As we enter the age of AI, cyber trucks and black swan fears, it’s hard not to wonder when the next collapse is coming and just what will be left in its wake.

Contact Karen D’ Souza at karenpdsouza@yahoo.com.

‘THE LEHMAN TRILOGY’

By Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power, directed by Sam Mendes, presented by American Conservatory Theater

Through: June 23

Where: Toni Rembe Theater, 405 Geary St., San Francisco

Running time: 3½ hours, two intermissions

Tickets: $25-$147; www.act-sf.org

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.