Three actors direct a three-act family saga in The Lehman Trilogy at Ahmanson – Press Enterprise

In 2008, the world watched as Lehman Brothers employees fled their offices hauling their belongings out of boxes on the day this giant global financial corporation imploded.

But before Lehman Brothers, there was Lehman Brothers.

The originally three siblings emigrated from Bavaria in the mid-18th century and built up their business stone by stone. Her sons and hers, related by blood and tied to a family history, moved on, expanding from cotton to commodities, to cash, and to leverage.

The Lehman Trilogy, which opens Sunday, March 6 at the downtown Ahmanson Theater and runs through April 10, tells the story of the family’s systematic rise, from crossing the Atlantic as the first brother’s steerage until the company’s march over the financial cliff of 2008.

Stefano Massini based his play on his 2016 scenic novel, both written in crisp verse. British director Sam Mendes (“American Beauty,” “Skyfall”) worked at London’s National Theater with adapter Ben Power and the cast to create the massive work and literally keep the story going.

In Mendes’ concept, three actors play the original three brothers, who as ghosts recreate the 160-year history of the Lehmans in America, playing all the characters – estimated to be between 50 and 75, from babies to emeriti.

Starring from the start was Simon Russell Beale (Falstaff on The Hollow Crown, Tony-winner for Jumpers) who plays eldest brother Henry. Adam Godley (Suits, Breaking Bad, Nanny McPhee) followed and played youngest brother Mayer.

They are joined in Los Angeles by Howard M. Overshown (last seen at Ahmanson in A View from the Bridge, forthcoming in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), who has appeared on Broadway as an understudy to middle brother Emanuel.

This three-act, three-actor play must surely test the skill and stamina of everyone involved. But via Zoom, the three actors appear eager to get back to their hardships after a long postponement caused by COVID 19.

In retrospect, Russell Beale recalls the early versions of the script not having lines assigned to characters. Mendes and the actors have long wrestled with ways to unfold the story.

Godley came a year later when 10 actors edited the roles. Among them was Ben Miles (“The Crown”), who ended up playing Emanuel but has since left for other projects.

Mendes chose these three actors, assigned a brother to each, and then distributed the other characters according to their status – in a dramaturgical sense. And soon after, Godley recalls, Mendes and set designer Es Devlin decided on a revolving set.

This sculptural box on the moving stage allows performers to jump across eras and locations. However, their acting technique allows them to switch ages and genders, height, weight and personalities.

As is her only costume per piece. Every actor wears a Victorian frock coat (designer Katrina Lindsay) throughout the three acts, no matter what character they are playing.

“We need to be able to produce props and get rid of them without the audience seeing it,” explains Godley. “We have these incredibly large and strategically placed pockets…”

“…which don’t ruin the line,” notes Russell Beale.

“When I first put my coat on, it felt like a glove,” Overshown adds. “All of our costumes are similar but slightly different.”

“I have very full skirts on my coat,” says Russell Beale, “that play a leading role in one of my characters, who is a very pretty girl.”

“You twirl amazing!” says Godley.

The actors credit the minimalistic hints, like that little twist, to Mendes’ ability and willingness to fit from the script to the physical and vocal traits of the dozens of characters.

“We shot the whole of ‘King Kong’ and another scene where Adam and Ben were building a Ford,” says Russell Beale. “That’s out of the game.”

He continues: “We had a table at the side of the rehearsal room, a panic table that the three of us went to, stacks of papers got higher and higher as the whole thing was constantly changing. And the three of us huddled around this table and thought, ‘What the hell is going on? I don’t know how to learn this.’”

Original London and Broadway performer Simon Russell Beale will reprise his role in the acclaimed production at the Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater from March 3rd to April 6th. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Find out what they did. Meanwhile, Nick Powell grew into their collaborator, composing the soundscape while responding to the actors. Luke Halls created the video design, which plays continuously. And pianist Candida Caldicot still accompanies the show, “the fourth character, bless her,” says Russell Beale.

Godley adds, “Call in the crew who will do the timing of the shoot and any projections that you see and the lighting.”

Then came Overshown, an American actor with a rich background in Shakespeare and new works. He had seen the play in New York. And then came his chance to cast Emanuel. Hired on a Tuesday, Overshown came to work the next day.

“I first read the play with the other two understudy members who were from before the pandemic,” he recalls. “So they did a line-through. They knew the show backwards and forwards. I lived the actor’s nightmare for six weeks. I woke up at 3am and got up and started doing lines because I needed to catch up.

So Overshown built his performance in reverse order, first learning the lines so he could go on stage and not spoiling the night for his two colleagues, and then did the preparatory reading and research.

The actors also learned time- and place-specific accents and worked with a dialect coach in London (Charmian Hoare) and New York (Kate Wilson). They settled on what Godley calls a “soft Bavarian accent.”

The actors also speak Hebrew, which Rabbi Daniel Bernstein taught them as it would have been spoken in 19th-century Bavaria.

But everyone agrees that one of their favorite moments in the play is the beginning.

Original London and Broadway cast member of The Lehman Trilogy Adam Godley will reprise his role in the acclaimed production at the Center Theater Group/Ahmanson Theater from March 3rd to April 6th. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Godley says, “Those early moments where you can feel the audience coming on board and they’re starting to understand the language of the play — it’s a beautiful thing to experience every night.”

Russell Beale begins the play with two long speeches. “It’s a bargain between you and us,” he notes. “I’ll see you through with my colleagues for sure. That’s an important part of our job as stage actors: reassuring the audience that they’re in good hands.”

He adds: “My absolute favorite is when Adam plays Emanuel’s wife. Pauline is tall and slim and beautiful and quite bossy and a bit suspicious. Adam just turns up the collar of the coat and there she is! And she comes back, so the audience says, ‘Here’s Pauline again.’ That’s what makes you bubble with joy when you see that.”

Overshown recalls, “As someone who’s seen the show from the audience, the first 15 minutes or so is (Russell Beale), and the first time I saw it I don’t think I breathed: listening to this guy, who effortlessly tells a story. And then this other person shows up, and this other person.”

And then Overshown has another favorite moment: he gets to dance the twist.

Dany Margolies is a Los Angeles-based writer.

“The Lehman Trilogy”

Where from: Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Previews Thursday, March 3rd through Saturday, March 5th; Regular performances from March 6th to April 10th; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 2pm and 8pm on Saturdays; 1pm or 7pm or 7:30pm on Sundays

Length: 3 hours, 20 minutes, including two breaks

Fitness: teenagers and adults. Children under the age of 6 are not allowed in the theatre.

Tickets: $35-$225

COVID-19 Protocols: The Center Theater Group requires guests to wear masks in the venue at all times. CTG also requires all viewers to provide proof of full vaccination upon arrival along with a government or school photo ID. Booster shots are required for everyone eligible. According to guidelines set by the CDC, “complete vaccination” means at least 14 days have elapsed since the last dose of an FDA-approved or WHO-listed COVID-19 vaccine was received. There is no waiting time after a booster vaccination. Please note that these health and safety procedures are subject to change at the sole discretion of Center Theater Group and based on evolving health and safety guidelines and conditions.

Information: 213-972-4400, CenterTheatreGroup.org

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