A grand time at the theater
Three Bone Theatre opens its new season with a blockbuster, The Lehman Trilogy
NOTE: The Biscuit doesn’t typically run reviews. Page Leggett wrote this as part of an assignment from the National Critics Institute, based at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. NCI leaders, including the long-time theater critic for The Chicago Tribune, came to Charlotte last weekend to lead a workshop for local arts critics and writers. The instructors and fellows saw The Lehman Trilogy Saturday night, and fellows submitted reviews Sunday morning.
Timing is everything.
That’s the message director David Winitsky seems to be telegraphing from the moment you enter the black box theatre at The Arts Factory for The Lehman Trilogy, the blockbuster opener to Three Bone Theatre’s new season.
Clocks are everywhere you look. A dozen or so are suspended overhead, and a giant clock mural (painted by Bunny Gregory) covers nearly the entire floor and part of the rear wall.
You may already be contemplating the concept of time, if you’re aware that the epic, which won the 2022 Tony Award for Best Play, clocks in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.
I’d been concerned it might prove an endurance test.
During most plays and movies that last this long, I find myself thinking which scenes or sections of dialogue could’ve been cut if only the playwright had been willing to kill a few darlings. But in this masterwork by Stefano Messini, there isn’t a wasted word.
Three Bone has given Lehman its Southeastern premiere; it’s one of the first theater companies in the country to produce the play, which ran on Broadway for a hot minute in March 2020 before COVID shut the world down.
It’s a story about banking, of course – which should interest many in Bank of America’s headquarters city – but on another level, it’s America’s story, as told through the perspective of a single immigrant family. Sweeping in scope, it takes us from the 1840s through the 2008 financial crisis.
We see the rise of the family’s fortunes from the time the three Lehman Brothers arrive in New York from Rimpar, Bavaria, through their work as cotton merchants in Montgomery, Alabama and up to 1969, when the last member of the family involved in the business dies. (That’s Bobby Lehman, son of Philip and grandson of Emanuel, one of the three founders of the legendary investment bank.)
The play doesn’t end when Bobby dies. It takes us right up to the firm’s stunning collapse, presided over not by a Lehman, but by CEO Dick Fuld. The firm’s demise, you may recall, led to the largest financial crisis in history.
The Lehman Trilogy tells its story in three acts and chronicles over 150 years of the family’s – and the country’s – triumphs and tragedies. Each time it looks like the brothers’ fortunes have been destroyed and all has been lost, they figure out a way to rebound. Subsequent generations of Lehmans will say it’s all strategy, but luck plays a role, too.
Becca Worthington, Kevin Shimko Scott Tynes-Miller on rehearsal at the Arts Factory at West End Studios
Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre
Three acts, three actors
There are two intermissions – and you must leave your seat during both to allow the crew to reconfigure the 80-seat theater. In Act I, the audience is facing the action. Acts II and III, performed in the round, are even more intimate.
It’s up to just three actors to do all the heavy lifting. Each one portrays dozens of characters of varying ages, faiths, geography and genders. Kevin Shimko, Becca Worthington (the first woman to be cast in any production of the play) and Scott Tynes-Miller are more than up to the challenge. They manage to do it without a single costume change, and yet we never forget where we are in time or who’s who.
Through the actors’ considerable talents – and thanks to dialect coach Gretchen McGinty – we know exactly who’s talking. And where they’re from.
The set is as simple as it gets. A desk, a blue leather chair and several boxes (appropriately, bankers’ boxes) and a couple of movable walls are all that’s needed to place us in New York or Montgomery.
The actors, who at times also serve as narrators, describe in glorious detail the crowded fabric showrooms in New York; the busy, bustling stock exchange; the cotton plantations of the deep South.
Kevin Shimko, Scott Tynes Milller and Becca Worthington
Courtesy of Three Bone Theatre
Sign of the times
And signage. What seems like just another part of the minimalist set – the Lehman Brothers’ sign with yellow lettering (it’s Helvetica Neue for any font fans out there) against a black background – becomes central to the story. The sign gets updated with each new iteration of the firm. Ultimately, that sign will become a poignant visual signaling the firm’s collapse.
Kathryn Harding’s sound design should get top billing along with the three actors. Ominous music you might expect in a horror movie plays as the audience – which was a sold-out crowd last Saturday night – enters.
We hear the sounds of water lapping against the docks and gulls crying when Haim Lehman (Shimko) first arrives in New York after one-and-a-half months at sea. He’s forced to Americanize his name to Henry almost immediately. It doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s ready to assimilate in a near-mythical America – one where an immigrant can show up with nothing and, through sheer will and hard work, make his fortune.
When it’s a Sunday morning, we hear church bells. At other times, we hear claps of thunder, a rainstorm, the thwack of tennis balls being volleyed over an imaginary net, a piano recital, a funeral dirge, the whistle and rumble of a train, the ticking of a clock. Time is always of the essence.
Winitsky – the director – is founder and executive artistic director of the Jewish Plays Project. He was brought in from New York to helm the project. He’s an appropriate choice since Judaism plays an important role in the Lehman story. The first part of it, anyway.
Henry often, and enthusiastically, expresses his thanks to God (“Baruch Hashem”). When the first of the three brothers dies – not long after coming to America – the other brothers sit shiva for the requisite amount of time, just as they would have in Germany. Decades later, when a Lehman descendant dies, the mourning is condensed considerably – from days to seconds.
Despite the weighty subject matter (slavery, war, finance, keeping up with rapidly changing times), the play has some light, even funny, moments, allowing the actors to show their comedic chops. Shimko, co-founder and artistic director of Comedy Arts Theater of Charlotte (CATCh), is largely known for being a comedic actor and improv artist. Lehman gives him the opportunity to showcase those comedic chops – and also have the gravitas the play demands.
The play was a triumph on Broadway. And it’s the latest – and largest – triumph for Three Bone, a company unafraid to take on a sizable challenge. Don’t bide your time; see this show before it’s gone.
Move Now – Tickets Are Nearly Gone
Catch The Lehman Trilogy at Three Bone Theatre (Arts Factory at West End Studios, 1545 W. Trade St. in Charlotte) before it closes. Tickets for the Friday and Saturday performances are sold out, but a Sunday matinee (Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.) has been added.
Due to adult language and depictions of antisemitism, it’s recommended for ages 14 and up. Tickets range from $10 to $30 and are available at threebonetheatre.com.
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