Why the financial drama of ‘The Lehman Trilogy’ doesn’t quite work

In a back corner, stage left, shredded paper is piled up in a huge, fluffy heap. As the stately D.C. premiere of “The Lehman Trilogy” unfolds at Shakespeare Theatre Company, it’s made to evoke cotton, ticker tape, wrecked fortunes, the ashes of a vanished century.

Sooner or later, though, you realize it actually stands for itself: a colossal pile of text, a great snow drift of words. We plow through it for the next 3½ hours.

Sam Mendes’s original staging of “The Lehman Trilogy” bounced between London and New York, winning an armful of Tonys in 2022. The play traces the evolution of our country’s economy, arcing in parallel with a great American dynasty. In 1844, Henry arrives from Bavaria, shortly followed by Emmanuel and Mayer. They set up shop — “Lehman Brothers Fabrics and Suits — in Montgomery, Ala. They soon abandon consumer goods for raw commodities, painting a new sign for “Lehman Brothers Cotton.” The family business outlasts the Civil War, moving north, expanding the portfolio to coffee and tobacco. Lehman Brothers becomes a bank. The bank grows and gains a trading floor; the trading floor takes over.

End of carousel

The script, adapted by Ben Powers from Stefano Massini’s epic poem, unfurls in extravagant stanzas, occasionally taxing the considerable talents of the cast. Edward Gero, Rene Thornton Jr. and Mark Nelson play not only the brothers but their wives, kids, business partners and successors. They make dozens of quicksilver character changes, only lightly aided by Anita Yavich’s subtle costuming. They also work hard to lighten things up, letting no opportunity for comedy go to waste. A simple gesture, such as handing over a bouquet of flowers, is played — with surprising effectiveness — for laughs.

Fairly or unfairly, all the money talk — margins, interest, profits — has a way of turning the viewer into an arbitrager. You hunt for narrative inefficiencies. For example: Financial dramas often mourn how estranged we’ve become from the real stuff of the world. (We used to design bridges and make our own steel; now we only invent accounting gimmicks.) This lament is best delivered in a single dose; one scene generally does the trick. “The Lehman Trilogy” chews on this idea, with patient dignity, for its entire running time. The play never reaches for other political, historical or psychological observations that would lend texture to the insight.

Given this rumination — and that the firm’s name has become shorthand for the 2008 crisis — it’s hard to swallow how the last couple of decades are handwaved away. Suddenly, we’re told, everything “just” ended. Did it? The problem, partly, is that the history is inconvenient: The last Lehman to head up the firm died in 1969. Once the family and economics stories split off, the writers have to snip off the end just to keep the whole narrative from unraveling.

Listen, I still can’t confidently explain how a “short” works, or what makes one “big.” Generally, plays such as Ayad Akhtar’s “Junk” succeed by making you feel savvy. Within the space of the theater, you get to experience the brief high of crystalline understanding. But if the spell breaks — if, during one of this play’s two intermissions, you’re tempted to Google “causes of the 1929 crash” — something has gone wrong. The third act mumbles past the Great Depression and globalization, making you question whatever prior knowledge you do have: Wait, are they trying to tell me that Lehman Brothers invented consumerism?

There was a time — maybe before Lucy Prebble’s 2009 play “Enron” — when it seemed preposterous to wring drama out of such subject matter. By now the material feels innately theatrical: Finance is all about the tension between simplicity and complexity, the material and the abstract. It requires talking the audience into imagining a world they can’t see. Prebble put her actors in dinosaur masks; in “The Big Short,” Margot Robbie explains mortgage-backed securities from a bubble bath.

This particular staging, by Arin Arbus — less austere than the glass-and-metal box of the Broadway version — may deploy painterly projections and wittily placed props, but “The Lehman Trilogy” commits to oral description, to language itself. “A temple of words!” thunders one of the brothers. It’s an audacious investment, one after my own heart. But we know the fine print: Returns are not guaranteed.

The Lehman Trilogy, written by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power. Directed by Arin Arbus. Scenic design, Marsha Ginsberg; costume design, Anita Yavich; lighting design, Yi Zhao; sound design and composition, Michael Costagliola; projection design, Hannah Wasileski; physical movement coordination, Lorenzo Pisoni. Three-and-a-half hours. Through March 30 at Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington. shakespearetheatre.org.

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