The Lehman Trilogy and Me
Back to the theater.
Theatre sure is back!
Over the past few weeks, like seemingly everyone I know in New York, I’ve been in and out of theaters — not movie theaters (though those too), but actual theaters, with live people performing on stage to an extremely appreciative masked audience. I’ve seen a whole pile of them, and will probably see more before the fall season is over.
I’m working on writing about a couple of those for my real job, but one that I don’t think I’ll get to write about is The Lehman Trilogy, which is on Broadway till early January. It blew me away. A three and a half hour play about banking: What a way to spend a night.
Okay, not exactly about banking. (Though I’d probably love that too.) It’s about the Lehman brothers — like the actual brothers, not the company that went under on that strange fall day in 2008. In three acts, it stretches over nearly a century and a half of a family’s story, one that has had serious, far-reaching consequences for most of us whether we know it or not.
I very nearly took a job at Lehman Brothers, actually — they offered me one, as a “quant” (the futuristic word for “quantitative analyst”), in 2004, to be started after I finished college in 2005. I knew the job was a terrible fit for me, though I liked the place and probably would have been paid exorbitant amounts of money to do it. Quants were the math nerds, the ones who could solve the problems with all the figures and statistics and spreadsheets. They’re the ones in the back office with the thick glasses who are literal genius.
I learn fast and am a good student, but I am not a genius, particularly not with numbers. I was offered the job for two reasons. One is that I interview very well, generally. The other is that one of the interviewers in that seven-interview day asked me to solve a logic puzzle (the burning rope problem, actually) and I had just happened to read and retain the answer for it the night before, as I froze (Didion-like) in a tiny hotel room at the Best Western in Times Square. The room was so tiny the door hit the corner of the bed when I opened it, and I couldn’t figure out how to adjust the temperature. I was, I think, twenty years old at the time.
The firm also committed the unforgivable sin of not actually paying the hotel outright for the room that they’d booked for me, expecting — I suppose — that I could just lay down Daddy’s credit card for a $400 a night room in Times Square and then be reimbursed afterward. As I recall it, the pre-authorization charge took up my entire credit card limit and I was mad.
Anyhow, they were nice enough, but I turned them down when they called to offer me a job the next week. I didn’t want to work in Times Square, and I didn’t want to be a quant, and also I had offers from Ernst & Young (which I also turned down primarily because they too were, and are, in Times Square) and from Banc of America Securities, who ultimately offered me a job as a business analyst (much better job for me) and won me over. (They put us up in the Palace Hotel and were, on the whole, very good at recruiting.)
I say all this because I have such a vivid memory of the night Lehman Brothers went down. It was September 2008, and I had left banking by then, first to work as a tech writer to pay my way through a graduate program in the humanities, and then to work as a journal editor and nonprofit arts administrator while finishing that graduate program. In fact, I’d just left my steady full-time job a month or two earlier for those slightly more precarious part-time jobs.
And I was scared. We’d gone to the 92nd Street Y for Maurice Sendak’s truly extraordinary 80th birthday celebration, and, being 25 and not wealthy, had decamped nearby to eat greasy, enormous slices of pizza in some brightly-lit joint. On the TV above us as we stood and munched, newscasters were looking panicked and talking about the banks failing. I became very worried that the two nonprofits to which I’d hitched my rent-paying star were about to be the unfortunate recipients of what is, in my experience, the true cost of trickle-down economics.
We made it through somehow, and I eventually worked my way into the very slightly less precarious fields of higher education and journalism. (Ha! Ha ha ha!) But I remember that night so vividly, because Lehman Brothers was the first to go, and I could only think about how they offered me a job and how I was watching a totally different version of my future flash before my eyes, one for which I had no idea how it would have ended.
Back to the Nederlander Theatre and The Lehman Trilogy. The play (originally, and somewhat surprisingly, written in Italian, and first produced in a French translation) was originally five hours long. It’s down to about three plus intermissions in this English version, directed by Sam Mendes.
The set is like a rotating cube with glass walls. One side is a giant conference room with perfectly designed overhead lights, the kind that every office building in Manhattan has, that haunt the dreams of those who’ve been corporate drones of any kind. The other is split into two rooms: one that’s kind of a storage room for file boxes and the other that’s sort of a living room, or maybe a waiting room, with a couch and a chair and a couple of lamps.
That set rotates a lot, with a giant screen wrapped around the back projecting images as a backdrop — an ocean, city, a field, and gradually more abstract images. In this English language version, adapted by Ben Miles and directed by Sam Mendes, three actors carry the whole thing (Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester, and Adam Godley), who narrate in the present tense the whole story beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. They trade parts, sometimes mid-sentence, and slowly spin out the tale of the three Jewish brothers who emigrated from Germany to Alabama, carved out a new position as middlemen in the cotton trade in the antebellum South, found new business in New York City as bankers, and eventually founded one of the most important banks on Wall Street, only to see it all go crashing down, eventually, thanks in part to the ever-heightening gambles that Wall Street finance has taken, and continues to take.
It’s absolutely gripping. If you can see it, you should. Perhaps its finest quality is simply managing to evoke, largely but not only through visual cues (even though what’s on stage barely changes), a feeling that matches how finance and capitalism have developed into a high-stakes, breakneck round-and-round casino sport. By the end I was getting panicky, but in a really good way? You won’t leave with a lot of confidence in the system, but at least you’ll be historically informed, and aware of how much the historical and cultural events — and what the play casts as, essentially, thieveries — of America’s past are poured into what happens in the present and the future.
Live theater has a power that I desperately missed, even though I watched a fair amount of it livestreamed to my TV or computer over the past year and a half. The immediacy, the fact that there are people right in front of you. The real presence of them. It makes abstractly rendered histories and redrawn framings come vibrantly alive. I am so, so happy to be back.
By the way, Lehman Brothers was located just eight blocks north of the Nederlander. It’s a Barclay’s now.
I spent the better part of this summer grumbling about reading Frank Herbert’s monstrous novel Dune, but thank the worm, the new movie is very good. I tackled the long and enduring appeal of that strange tale.
Wes Anderson is very hit-or-miss for me, mostly miss, and his new film The French Dispatch is no exception. But why! It seems made in a lab for me! These, and other questions, in my review.
I also rounded up 19 movies from the fall festivals that you definitely don’t want to miss (and told you how to see them).
And I’ve been working alllllllll weekend long on editing Salty, which is now due out on June 21, 2022. If you’d like a copy, you sure can order one now.
Been watching and reading
This was not my best watching week — I had to skip a lot of screenings to finish writing about Dune, among other things. I watched David Lynch’s 1984 version of Dune, and the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, and then two goofy movies: Poltergeist (much more campy and less scary than I’d been led to believe) and I Married a Witch (just one of those good old 1940s madcap romance things, surprisingly hilarious).
But I did read Laird Hunt’s National Book Award-nominated novel Zorrie (which I’m covering for Vox’s NBA nominee roundup) and it’s great, and quite short. Hunt did something magical with the book, covering the sweep of a whole life. I’d recommend it.
Odds and ends
I’ve said this before, but I really like Jami Attenberg’s newsletter. It might be the best one on writing out there — or at least for me, a writer who hates reading about writing, anyhow. Here’s the latest installment, which I think is very insightful.
I don’t drink a ton of tea (and caffeinated tea makes me have a panic attack, though coffee is fine? weird) but when I do it’s usually from my Tea Runners subscription, which yields up four samples of loose leaf tea every month. (I get the herbal box.) I really love it and figured, well, it’s tea season again: you might too.