by Lynn on November 19, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Bluma Appel Theatre, produced by Canadian Stage, Toronto, Ont. Playing until Dec. 2, 2023.

Written by Stefano Massini

Adapted by Ben Power

Directed by Philip Akin

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Steve Lucas

Sound by Miquelon Rodriguez

Cast: Ben Carlson

Jordan Pettle

Graeme Somerville

A blockbuster of a play, huge in scope, perception and full of depth. A play and production about a little Jewish immigrant family who started a financial empire with spectacular results, both good and bad.

The Story. It’s billed as “A family and a company that changed the world.” The story begins in 1844 on a New York City dock. Chaim Lehman (pronounced “Laymahn”) has just arrived by boat after months from Bavaria and he talks with conviction of the American Dream. He has come there to the centre of that dream–America– to make his way in the world.

But first he must deal with people, like the customs person who can’t pronounce Chaim (that ‘ch’ sound from the German) or Lehman, so Chaim becomes Henry, and Lehman becomes Lehman (pronounced Leeman). Henry starts a small shop in Mongomery, Alabama that sells fabric. He is soon joined by his two brothers, Emmanuel, the middle brother and Mayer, the youngest. Still there are not many Jews in Montgomery, Alabama.

Henry is considered the ‘head’, the man with the ideas who is always right. Emmanuel is known as ‘the arm’, who has the brawn or energy. And Mayer who has a baby-face like a potato refers to himself as ‘the potato’ acts as the calming presence between his two demanding brothers.

All of them reveal an affinity for business, knowing an opportunity when it appears and taking full advantage of those opportunities. The brothers were full of ingenuity. They saw an opportunity to keep the store open on Sundays while everybody else went to church, and presented an opportunity for the churchgoers to also buy fabric etc. The etc. became shovels and seeds. When disaster struck—many plantations had their cotton crops go up in flames and thus it affected the creation of fabric–so the Lehman Brothers then went into the business of buying raw cotton where they could and then selling that to the fabric maker—in a sense creating the idea of the middle man. They became brokers. They began dealing with “the north” when Emmanuel went to New York to see what kind of business they could drum up up there and decided they should open an office there that he would run. They expanded the business to concentrate in making money, this led to them eventually becoming bankers. They went from Lehman Brothers Cotton to Lehman Brothers Bank. To Lehman Brothers financial, each time expanding the business and shifting its focus.  

They experienced disappointment when there was a problem—such as fires, war, the depression—and they took those problems and saw opportunities. The family expanded. Each brother married and had children. The children displayed the same imagination and creativity to contribute to the business. And each generation of Lehmans out-thought the previous generation with new ideas, focus and the way of dealing with the changing world.

And then, in 2008, 163 years after they established the firm, it collapsed into bankruptcy and either triggered or was part of one of the largest financial crises in history. Interestingly at the time, there was no Lehman in the company, the last one sold his involvement and soon after, the company collapsed. Of course, that was the time in the States, people were irresponsibly loaned huge amounts of money they could never pay back—and that was part of the financial crisis. But for the most part Lehman Brothers, the huge company, was held responsible for the triggering.

The Production. The play is presented in three parts over the evening—it’s a huge production lasting three hours and fifteen minutes, with two intermissions. There are three brothers so each one is spotlighted with his own story. Three actors play all the parts

Ben Carlson plays ‘the head,’ Henry Lehman plus other members of the family. Graeme Somerville plays ‘the arm,’ strong-willed Emmanuel Lehman. Jordan Pettle plays ‘the potato,’  the diplomatic Mayer Lehman. They are all, individually and collectively brilliant in realizing these fascinating characters.

As Henry, Ben Carlson is measured in his speech, confident in his decisions because he is never wrong, and not arrogant. He is a businessman, wily and wise in his decisions and brilliant in his ability to ‘read the room’ and see the endless possibilities for the business.

Graeme Somerville plays Emmanuel Lehman as a determined man who also see where opportunities are and goes after them. He saw the potential of doing business in New York City and went about establishing an office of the company there. He was determined to marry Pauline Sondheim who was already engaged to someone else. And he was persistent and patient. He kept asking her to marry him, weekly for months until she relented. Graeme Somerville plays Emmanuel with a subtle gruffness. Emmanuel has no time for small talk or chit chat. He goes right to the heart of things.

Jordan Pettle plays Mayer Lehman with the diplomacy of the brother who kept peace between his two older, more combative brothers. Mayer was also smart and perceptive. He could solve problems. He was an asset to the company and they all were.

Philip Akin has directed the production with great skill and sensitivity. There is a delicate scene of one of the brothers kissing a mezuzah on his door well that is so subtly, beautifully done I thought it was breathtaking. Akin establishes relationships simply and efficiently. And while Akin is in command of the production, I had a lot of trouble with Camellia Koo’s set and how Akin had to negotiate his cast over this unwieldy set.  

Camellia Koo is usually a fine designer. But this set had me shaking my head in confusion. It looks like several tiers or bleachers of wood structures that the actors climb up and down or walk up and along for the whole show. Often the cast of three pull out boxes that form the structure to perhaps suggest a different location or scene. But I gotta tell ya, I was exhausted watching those guys go up and down those levels, endlessly for the whole show. Why? Is all that climbing and moving of boxes symbolic of them climbing to the top of industry?  Perhaps but then they are also scurrying down the levels, so that can’t be it. I have to assume that this is the set that director, Philip Akin wanted. I just don’t understand the point of that unwieldy structure.

There is also something fascinating. The whole structure is on a raised platform with perhaps several inches between the platform and the stage floor. If you look closely, crammed in that space are bare feet. Are they suggesting the cramped quarters on the boat that immigrants like Henry endured—with people packed into steerage—crammed together?

We don’t hear of the people the Lehman Brothers defeated in business. Are the feet supposed to be symbolic of all the people trampled when their businesses collapsed? I don’t know, but those feet made my eyebrows raise wondering who they represent.

The Lehman Trilogy is a stunning play. In simple scenes, with economic language (bravo to the translation by Ben Power), you get the whole breadth of the thinking and philosophy of these immigrant brothers who came to America seeking their dream and making it a reality. And the people in their family were primed to carry on the family business. Is it about greed? Thinking too big? Hubris? It’s all of that and more. And Philip Akin and his strong cast have brought it to life with verve, conviction and strong legs to get up down that ‘mountain’ of a set.

Comment. I first saw The Lehman Trilogy in London a few years ago. This time I looked at it in a different light because the world has changed. I bring a certain perspective to the play.

I look at those three Jewish immigrant brothers,  all the initiatives, the thinking to read a situation and make an advantage of it to do business, to then shift into banking to make more money, and I see aspects that play into a perceived stereotype for antisemitism, If the Lehman Brothers were not Jewish would I be thinking that or not at all? Questions that arise with good theatre.

Canadian Stage Presents:

Opened: Nov. 17, 2023

Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes (2 intermissions)

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 T Taitt November 19, 2023 at 10:00 pm

The soles are those of Black feet. They are the feet of the enslaved who worked the cotton, coffee & tobacco plantations and upon whose backs the Lehmans built their early fortune.


2 Lydia November 20, 2023 at 7:58 pm

You’re much more generous and patient than I. And the “Jewface” question is sort of legit: why would an Italian Catholic (which Massini is – although he’s very Jew-curious, as you can see in his other plays) write this story of Jewish American capital? Why are the characters repeatedly seen to be praying, and saying Baruch Hashem at every stroke of good luck? Why is their faith central to the story? And they don’t seem to be ostracized for it in any way; if the intention was to show how a family that belongs to a plucky minority faith group succeeds against all odds, we don’t really see very many unfriendly odds (unless you count the abolition of slavery as one of them). Maybe the 5-hour versions of the play make more sense than this ‘reduced’ 3+hr one, but I doubt it.

I really didn’t know what to make of this. They are awful profiteers – but also, kinda fun and cool dudes? Slavery is a footnote in the story, and at the other end the subprime crisis isn’t even a footnote. What is it that you’re wanting to do, Massini, I’m not at all clear.


3 Lynn November 20, 2023 at 11:46 pm

Hmmmmm I guess I’m slow, what is the Jewface Question….that family and their accomplishments both good and bad warrant a play. Please explain so I can try and answer. Lynn Slotkin


4 Lynn November 20, 2023 at 11:49 pm

How about this: Stefano Massini, (who wrote the play) who lives in Italy, is a Roman Catholic with a passion for Jewish heritage that dates to his childhood. It was sparked when his father, who owned a factory in Milan, saved the life of an employee who had collapsed at work; the grateful worker, who was Jewish, insisted on giving his boss’ son a Jewish education. Massini broke into directing with a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in Florence in 2002 and won an award two years later for a play he had written called “The End of Shavuot” that was produced in Milan.


5 Pauline Morris November 25, 2023 at 4:15 pm

Thanks, Lynn, I had the same gut perspective about the subtext of the play. I was even fearful that I ‘d step outside into an antisemitic tirade, as all the memes spark that now. This is very old stuff, to be honest, but worsened by current world events. I agree with the other writers that the feet represent being trod upon, by capitalism and prejudice perhaps, but not necessarily by the Lehmans themselves. They were entreprenurial, an asset in most cultures, but the little guy is never the winner. They sold the goods that the slaves produced. The writer points to enslavement, but as far as I know, Lehmans never owned slaves. Unfair to blame them for the practice. Or for enjoying the wealth that followed. That’s a modern judgement acted out on another age (which is abhorrent, but happened).

Lydia, for good or for ill, it’s pretty common to hear observant Jews praising G-d, with Baruch HaShem (means, Blessed be the Name). It’s ‘thank you’. Don’t many Christians do that too, by saying “Thank God” a lot? Kind of a magical way of justifying one’s good fortune and not somehow being jinxed by it, “fingers crossed”.

The world of the Lehmans was a parallel to that of the Fords and Astors and Carnegies and all the rest. Note, they did not cross those boundaries much. Henry Ford was a notorious racist of every flavour. It was a shock when a Kennedy (Catholic) became president. Ditto Obama. Jews have to be quiet about the religion to succeed, or the old memes raise their heads. The play points out that one as well. Don’t blame them.


6 Lynn November 26, 2023 at 12:05 am

What thought-provoking comments. Thanks all. Those feet can be interpreted in many and various ways and I think the various interpretations are all valid. And the director was certainly making his own statement. Thanks to you all. Lynn


7 Elaine Calder March 24, 2024 at 12:56 pm

Lynn, The Lehman Trilogy is about to be produced in Victoria. I have a non-observant Jewish friend who won’t go to see it, partly because he feels The Belfry should be reaching out to the Jewish community to address the “problems” in the play and help establish a context for audiences. He’s not read or seen the play, just read a number of mostly British reviews that talk about anti-semitic tropes.
I’m baffled by this. Every successful businessman has to be something. Andrew Carnegie was a Scot. The Lehman brothers were German Jews. So? And I’ve also read enough history to know that when Christian countries considered usury to be a sin, it was the Jews who were allowed to lend money and act as bankers. If the Lehman brothers arrived in Alabama with a gift for business, and eventually finance, they came from a tribe with 350 years’ experience and practice.
Finally, a question. Apparently when Kaddish was recited in London, members of the audience every night responded with “Amen”. Did this happen in Toronto?


8 Lynn March 24, 2024 at 7:38 pm

Oy….I agree with every observation you mention. I’m baffled by lots of reactions. Let your friend be ignorant and not see the play to see for himself. People will look at that play whether or not Jewish actors are in it and still find fault with it. And yes if Gentiles were at the centre of the play there would be no problem. As for your question….I said “Omein” to myself at the end of the prayer. I didn’t/wasn’t aware if people said it. If I see it anywhere else I will be watchful. Thanks. Lynn