Superb storytelling, masterful acting define TimeLine's brilliant 'Lehman Trilogy'

#8220;Lehman Brothers is going bankrupt.#8221;

TimeLine Theatre's bravura Chicago-area premiere of #8220;The Lehman Trilogy,#8221; Italian writer Stefano Massini's expansive drama chronicling the rise and fall of the financial powerhouse, commences with news reports announcing the firm's 2008 failure and the global financial crisis that followed.

Within moments, we're transported back to 1844 and the promise-filled moment when a German Jew named Henry Lehman (Mitchell J. Fain) arrives in New York wearing new shoes and a black frock coat, carrying a suitcase.

#8220;He had been dreaming of America,#8221; says Henry, embracing his new home with reverence and wonder.

Thus begins an engrossing examination of western capitalism in all its glory and ignominy. Adapted by Ben Power from Massini's play, #8220;The Lehman Trilogy#8221; celebrates entrepreneurship and vision, risk-taking, adaptability and fearlessness while acknowledging that greed, opportunism and exploitation also sustain the system.

It's also a story about immigrants who arrived in the U.S. with nothing and built an empire and the subsequent generations charged with maintaining it. And it's the story of America, which sometimes lives up to its promise and sometimes does not.

Discarded office supplies #8212; bankers boxes, printers, conference tables, leather chairs and coffee mugs from the failed firm #8212; crowd designer Collette Pollard's warehouse set where the action unfolds accompanied by Anthony Churchill's projections and Andre Pluess' discreet, evocative sound design.

The story begins in the fabric and clothing shop Fain's Henry (the brains) establishes in Montgomery, Alabama. A few years later, his brothers join him: Anish Jethmalani's Emanuel (the brawn) and Joey Slotnick's Mayer (the mediator). They expand into farm equipment and seed sales. They pivot to buy and sell raw cotton, then coffee and railroads. Finally, they become bankers, #8220;merchants of money#8221; whose firm survives the Civil War, the Stock Market Crash and World War II. They were invincible, until they weren't.

TimeLine's meticulous dramaturgy indicates the play takes historical license, but Massini and Power's storytelling is superb. Richly poetic #8220;The Lehman Trilogy#8221; is rife with metaphor: a tightrope walker embodying the perils of stock trading; a breeze heralding the next big idea; finance as a street corner con; dreams portend triumph and disaster.

The play also addresses capitalism's human cost: fortunes rooted in America's original sin and made on the backs of enslaved people; the deadly consequences of speculation; ruthlessness sparked by want.

Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling helm this warm, deftly staged TimeLine/Broadway in Chicago co-production, whose rushed conclusion that skims over Lehman's spectacular collapse proves a minor glitch in a major work. Adding a couple of scenes could resolve the problem. Where the show succeeds most is with the extended time spent with #8220;Lehman's#8221; brilliant cast of Fain, Jethmalani and Slotnick, who morph seamlessly between siblings and spouses, children and grandchildren, colleagues and customers conjuring the descendants of three brothers who dreamed big in America.

#8226; #8226; #8226;

Location: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000, or

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 26. Also 2 p.m. Oct. 4, 11 and 25. No 7:30 p.m. shows Oct. 8, 15 and 29

Tickets: $35-$105

Running time: About 3 hours 10 minutes, with intermissions

Parking: Validated parking in the Water Tower Place garage

Rating: For teens and older

Anish Jethmalani, left, Mitchell J. Fain and Joey Slotnick play Emanuel, Henry and Mayer Lehman in TimeLine Theatre's Chicago-area premiere of the Tony Award-winning "The Lehman Trilogy." Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Anish Jethmalani, left, Joey Slotnick and Mitchell J. Fain play Emanuel, Mayer and Henry Lehman as well as dozens of other characters in TimeLine Theatre and Broadway in Chicago's production of "The Lehman Trilogy" directed by Nick Bowling and Vanessa Stalling. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
Anish Jethmalani, clockwise from top, Mitchell J. Fain and Joey Slotnick play dozens of characters in "The Lehman Trilogy" at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. Courtesy of Liz Lauren
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