by Lynn on April 3, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, John Hirsch Stage. Plays until April 13, 2024.

Written by Stefano Massini

Adapted by Ben Power

Directed  by Richard Greenblatt

Set and costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting and video by Hugh Conacher

Original composition and sound by Ashley Au

Cast: Ari Cohen

Jordan Pettle

Alex Poch Goldin

The sprawling story of the Lehman brothers, three immigrants from Bavaria who came to America to make their fortune and started a financial empire with spectacular results, both good and bad; given a clear, impressive production beautifully acted and directed. 

The Story. The story begins in 1844 on a New York City dock.Chaim Lehman (pronounced “Laymahn”) has just arrived by boat after one and a half months from Bavaria. 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.

First he must deal with people, like the customs person who can’t pronounce Chaim (that ‘ch’ sound from the German) or Lehmanso Chaim becomes Henry, and Lehman becomes Lehman (pronounced Leeman). Henry starts a small shop in Montgomery, 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. Mayer also has several impressive ideas of his own.

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. The store grew into a banking empire.

The Production and comment. Richard Greenblatt has directed a clear, spare production. Gillian Gallow has designed a simple set that consists of a moveable table and chairs and that’s it. The table and chairs are moved to represent a new scene or location.  Projections appear on the back of the stage indicating various locations and images that augment a scene. It opens with a projection of a huge highrise building with the words Lehman Brothers at the top. It establishes the size that banking empire became for context. Kudos to lighting and video designer, Hugh Conacher.

Henry Lehman (Alex Poch Goldin), enters, wearing a brown suit,  suitcase in hand, having landed in America from Bavaria, after a voyage on a boat for one and a half months. Henry Lehman seems hunched a bit, as played by Alex Poch Goldin, but there is an enthusiasm, a buoyancy when he says “America!” This is the place of his dreams to succeed. His posture straightens after that. Poch Goldin plays Henry as a man on a mission. He has no time for small talk or jokes. He is focused on work. He takes his ‘calling’ as ‘the head’ very seriously. And he is never wrong.

The other brothers arrive after that. Emanuel Lehman, known as “The Arm,” was a man of action and Ari Cohen plays him as watchful and serious. He sizes things up and makes decisions quickly. Emanuel went to New York City to check things out, and instantly decided the business needed a New York Office and he would head it.  

Henry and Emanuel are wary of each other and always seem to be in competition although they never really fight. The brother who seems to keep the peace between them is Mayer, played with nimble finesse and humour by Jordan Pettle. He is the baby brother, the one with a face as smooth as a ‘potato’ and so he is called “the potato.” Mayer has many good ideas that he slides in with quiet determination.  

Jordan Pettle was also in the Toronto production last year of the play playing Mayer—it was a completely different production. This does not mean he is repeating his performance. He is not. The performance in Winnipeg is athletic, agile in its own way, animated in a different way, and still clearly illuminating Mayer’s intelligence and business smarts. I found Pettle’s performance more animated and that comes naturally performing with Alex Poch Goldin and Ari Cohen.

There is a smooth fluidity to director Richard Greenblatt’s direction. Movement is intentional and not superfluous. The table and chairs are moves swiftly to change scenes. Often a brother would climb on a chair and onto the table to make a point. It all seems natural.  

Alex Poch Goldin, Ari Cohen and Jordan Pettle are fine actors playing the parts of brothers who are Jewish. All three actors are Jewish. Should this matter? Should only Jewish actors play Jewish characters. Personally, I don’t think so because it opens up all sorts of thorny issues (only gay actors should play gay characters, for example). There certainly have been enough gentile actors playing Jews recently—Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein for example.  I’m sure the debate will go on no matter what the play. That said, these three fine actors bring a shorthand of sorts to their roles; they know how being Jewish defined the Lehman Brothers just as how that defines them. Lots to think about.  

The story is huge with all the financial implications as the business grew. It’s also a small family story of different personalities all working together for a common purpose—to make the business grow and eventually to make money. That is their product—money. They go from opening their dry-goods store in Alabama, to expand the business by moving to New York City to run their own bank.

As I have said in a previous review, the brothers were brilliant at business. They could see an opportunity when it presented itself and ran with it without hesitation on how it might look. To an outside eye, their business acumen could garner anti-semitic comments. If they were gentile businessmen and not Jewish, their business smarts would not have been commented upon. Such is the world.

This production was well worth a trip to Winnipeg.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Company presents:

Plays until April 13 2024

Running time: 3 hours (1 intermission and one pause).

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