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'The Lehman Trilogy' review: Rich, rewarding saga of a financial empire

Stars of "The Lehman Trilogy" are, from left,

Stars of "The Lehman Trilogy" are, from left, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley.  Credit: Mark Douet

WHAT "The Lehman Trilogy"

WHEN | WHERE Through April 20, Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Ave.

INFO From $150, 212-933-5812, armoryonpark.org

BOTTOM LINE A sweeping rag-to-riches-to-rags saga about one of the world's major financial institutions.

The packing boxes are piled in haphazard stacks all over the sleek boardroom as a lone janitor tidies up and turns out the lights. We’ve seen these boxes before, on Sept. 15, 2008, to be exact, in the arms of the dejected and distraught former employees of Lehman Brothers, leaving for the last time the headquarters of their suddenly bankrupt investment bank.

In "The Lehman Trilogy," the hard-hitting, profound piece of theater at the Park Avenue Armory, these boxes represent many things, as do three flawless actors — Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley — portraying the Jewish immigrant brothers who came to America from Bavaria in 1844 searching for a better life.

In Italian playwright Stefano Massini's masterful epic (the English adaptation by Ben Powers had a sold-out run at London's National Theatre last summer), we first meet eldest brother Henry (Beale) moments after he arrives in America, his name unceremoniously changed from Heyum by an uncaring customs official. He makes his way to Montgomery, Alabama, to start a fabric shop, soon joined by his younger siblings Emanuel (Miles) and Mayer (Godley). 

The brothers struggle through years of poverty (early on the store makes $2.70 a day), but eventually find more profit in raw materials and acting as middlemen — buying cotton from plantation owners, then reselling it to manufacturers up north. Once convinced the real money is in New York, they expand their reach to coffee, oil, tobacco, until ultimately it's simply money — "a long line of zeros," as Henry puts it. Eventually these deeply religious men found one of the world's most powerful financial institutions, until it all comes crashing down under the pressures of the subprime mortgage crisis. 

Through three complex acts, these actors are exemplars of their craft as they take on countless characters, multiple generations of their own family, along with plantation owners, elderly rabbis, simpering brides, naughty children. Those boxes get a workout as well, piled up to become ladders or Wall Street desks or towering buildings, rearranged repeatedly on Es Devlin's striking glass box set that revolves on a polished black stage, backed by a cyclorama for Luke Halls' evocative video projections. 

The superbly acted, technically stunning production, directed with a sure hand by Sam Mendes, flies although it runs more than three hours, imparting along the way valuable lessons about the workings of the financial market. But it's the human story, the richness of the immigrant experience, that stays with you, that makes you think of all those who at one time, as Henry puts it, "stepped into the magical music box called America."

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