“Everything that was built here was built on a crime,” the doctor says. “The roots run so deep you cannot see them, but the ground beneath our feet is poisoned. It had to end this way.”
That is, of course, a warning that the pattern of reckless profit and resulting pain will repeat: in the 1929 crash, which Lehman Brothers managed to survive by morphing yet again, and in the 2008 crash, which it didn’t. It is also a signal that the founders of the firm — whose deaths, when they come, are meant to move us, and do — were not the ethical betters of their more vulgar descendants.
With a subdued, filmic score by Nick Powell, played live by Candida Caldicot on an upright piano, “The Lehman Trilogy” is structured in three parts. It follows Emanuel and Mayer to New York, and their family through successive generations, whose principals we first meet in childhood.
So here is Emanuel’s son Philip (Beale), a future shark, as a gape-mouthed tot prodded to parade his smarts for guests. Here is Philip’s son Bobby (Godley) as a buoyant 10-year-old, whose father mercilessly dismantles the boy’s love for horses as creatures rather than commodities.
And most enchantingly, here is Mayer’s son Herbert (Lester), a future governor and senator, as a thumb-sucking 3-year-old playing with his father’s beard, and later as a fair-minded 9-year-old at Hebrew school, objecting to the divine massacre of the innocent children of Egypt.
No matter how horrid some of the Lehmans become (not Herbert, though; never Herbert), knowing them young cushions our feelings toward them later. That’s human nature. What’s unsettling is which people in this saga of capitalism we see portrayed, which people the play helps us to imagine clearly and which people we are asked to imagine vaguely or not at all. Proximity shapes our sympathies.
“The Lehman Trilogy” exists because of the cascading financial disaster that extinguished Lehman Brothers in 2008, yet its perspective is very much from the top of that deluge. Any harm bucketing down below is at best an abstraction, just as it is in 1929, when the play shows us suicides of despairing stockbrokers but none of the pain radiating through lower social strata. And slavery, the founder of the family’s feast, is kept in soft focus, off to the side.