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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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Ambitious ‘Lehman Brothers’ play is both a Jewish and American story


Earlier this summer in Boston, Carey Perloff directed the first “homegrown” production of “The Lehman Trilogy,” a British import that won the 2022 Tony Award for best play.

Now she’s directing that production here, where it will open the 2023-24 season at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

“It is our story,” she says. “And it’s thorny.” 

Written by the Italian playwright and novelist Stefano Massini, adapted and translated by Ben Power of England’s National Theatre and directed by Sam Mendes, the “Trilogy” story of the rise and fall of a powerful banking family debuted on the London stage. It has been widely acclaimed as stunning theater and as a critique of capitalism.


It’s also one of the most complicated plays you’ve ever heard of.

That’s another reason why Perloff, an esteemed director who headed San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater for about 25 years, claims it as her own. 

She is American, yes. She is Jewish, yes. And she is a lover of complex theater, of big bold drama that addresses serious issues in strikingly and uniquely theatrical terms.    

This play seems made to her measure. 

The trilogy traces the course of a family over 150 years, from the arrival of three penniless Jewish brothers from Bavaria in Montgomery, Ala., on through their New York triumphs in banking and up to the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers firm. That was the climax of the subprime mortgage crisis and the end of the line for the bank. Its $600 billion bankruptcy filing remains the largest in U.S. history.

Intellectually serious and theatrically dazzling, “The Lehman Trilogy” involves only three actors. They play all the roles — the immigrant Lehman brothers, their descendants, their wives and children, more than 50 characters in total — without so much as a change of costume.  

All this plays out on a stage that must be as versatile as the performers. In London and New York, it was dominated by a big, revolving glass box. In St. Louis as in Boston, the set is made up of wood crates, the kind of crates used in the cotton trade.

Henry, Emanuel and Mayer Lehman began their American business with a fabric store in Mobile, Ala., which they turned into a new business, brokering cotton. 

“You can’t help but root for the brothers,” Perloff said. “For thousands of years in Europe, Jews were strangers everywhere. Careers were restricted, ownership of property was restricted. Then you come here and you are a citizen with rights. For the first time.”  

This is the happiest aspect of the many immigrant stories, and Perloff’s production acknowledges that and more with a new score by the Jewish American composer Michael Bennett. His music, Perloff says, “brings the play a Jewish heart.”  

Nevertheless, as those crates remind us, any story about the cotton trade in the 1840s is implicitly a story about enslavement. Some of the Lehmans owned slaves. The play has attracted criticism for not addressing that more explicitly or more strongly.

Does the play, caught up in 20th century economics, pay insufficient attention to racism? Perhaps. Other critics perceive a different problem roiling under the surface: antisemitism.

In an opinion piece in the Guardian, British writer Dave Rich (“The Left’s Jewish Problem,” “Everyday Hate”) suggests that antisemitic tropes about Jews and money are so baked into Western thought that “Trilogy” does not so much address them as take them for granted. 

Reviewers, too, generally ignored the possibility that the “Trilogy” traffics in antisemitism, he writes. But “it’s Jews, money and power, over and over again. … This ought to ring alarm bells.”

Rich emphasizes that he does not want to “cancel” anything and that he is not accusing anyone of being an antisemite. But he does think we ought to be able to talk about it.

Perloff is inclined to a similar view — a big, complicated view that looks for theater on a similar scale. It’s easy to imagine that she has endeavored to live on that scale herself. 

At 64, Perloff’s wide-ranging resume includes a host of American premieres that she directed, helming the ACT through post-earthquake rebuilding and initiating assorted international theater arts projects. (Along the way, she and her husband, lawyer Anthony Giles, also raised two children.) 

When she left ACT, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty hailed her as “an artistic leader with integrity of vision, discriminating literary taste and the executive muscle to make big projects happen.”

She’s also done a lot of writing: a memoir, plays and several books on theater. Her latest, “Pinter and Stoppard: A Director’s View,” draws on her decades of working with both playwrights. 

Stoppard received the 2023 Tony Award for best play for “Leopoldstadt,” his semiautobiographical drama about a Jewish family from the end of the 19th century into the Holocaust. The fact that two Jewish family stories, both ending in disaster, won the award back-to-back is a curious coincidence but, Perloff suspects, not altogether surprising. 

“A lot of incredible Jewish theater is happening right now,” she says. “And working on a play [like the ‘Trilogy’] is fascinating. It’s epic, it’s fluid, and it doesn’t point fingers. 

“But it’s an American story, for better or for worse. It’s ours. And we have to be able to talk about it all.” 

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