Four Actors Play Multiple Characters in Two Broadway Plays

In his very fine book “A Lifetime with Shakespeare” (McFarland),  about having directed all of Shakespeare’s plays, the late Paul Barry postulated that casting is eighty-five percent of directing and that good directors, by definition, cast well. If that is so, “Lackawanna Blues” director Ruben Santiago-Hudson owes most of the brilliance of the play to his casting and to the acting of the play’s 25-plus roles. Each character of variety and nuance, to paraphrase  Pseudolus (“…Forum”), is played by an actor of such…well, let me put it this way: Santiago-Hudson plays every one of them. And, oh yes, he also wrote the piece.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and guitarist Junior Mack [Photos: Marc J. Franklin]

While the play, named for the town in upstate New York where Santiago-Hudson grew up, is based on his early childhood (and later vignettes), it is less autobiographical than it is auto-observational. Or even straight biography, concentrating as it does on Ms. Rachel Crosby, the Lackawanna boarding-house proprietor known as “Nanny,” who raised the young Ruben.

Nanny is the leading character, but the supporting cast of misfits, hangers-on and other generally needy folk who show up at her boarding houses are as vivid a supporting cast as one could imagine. Among them are extended-family members from the south and other newcomers that Nanny would counsel and guide toward employment in the  1950s booming industrial economy. (Arrive on Monday, have a job by Wednesday.) Nanny was “like the government if it really worked.”

A fight between a man with a missing finger and one with an amputated leg was the “nine-finger/one-legged fight of the Century.” There is also a one-armed man, an abused wife who Nanny takes in, a fascinating riff by a former Negro League pitcher, and a well-traveled old man, given to uttering  malaprops, who was in awe of New York’s “Entire State Building.”

Accompanied onstage by the blues-inflected guitarist Junior Mack, Santiago-Hudson embodies all the characters unerringly, via distinct vocal tones and deft shifts in posture and demeanor – even in rapid conversation with one another. (Ruben also plays a mean harmonica.)

The solo “Lackawanna Blues” ran off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 2001 and was later a multi-cast HBO film. However it fared in those settings, it is more than comfortable and is, in fact, comforting, on a Broadway stage, where Santiago-Hudson’s deep feelings for the people he brings to life bear out that love really is “a many blended thing.” That befuddled old man was onto something.

At Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, only through November 7. Information and tickets: 

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As much as “Lackawanna Blues” provides insight into the lives and experiences of certain African Americans over a certain limited time, “The Lehman Trilogy” does the same for certain Jewish immigrants to America over a longer period. The latter play is in fact a veritable history lesson, which is not to suggest it is academic, dry or even a tad boring. On the contrary, “The Lehman Trilogy” is as entertaining – enthralling even – as it is instructive, and vice versa.

“The Lehman Trilogy” has the feel of a long-established historical account, but having been inspired by the 2008 collapse of the Lehman Brothers financial dynasty, it is necessarily a recent creation. The play is adapted by British National Theatre associate director Ben Power from Richard Dixon’s 2019 translation of Italian writer Stefano Massini’s 2016 fact-based novel-in-verse. It originated at the National in London and ran at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in 2019 before moving to Broadway where it was an early-preview victim of the Covid shutdown. Now resumed at the Nederlander Theatre, “The Lehman Trilogy,” fluidly directed by Sam Mendes, is a monumental achievement…in content, execution, performance and, not least, in its three-plus hours (including two intermissions) that whizz by.

From left: Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Adrian Lester [Photo: Julieta Cervantes]

After a brief prologue, the story unfolds chronologically, beginning with Heyum Lehmann, Americanized to Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale), arriving at New York harbor from Bavaria (Germany) in 1844 at age 22 and soon establishing a sole-proprietor dry-goods store in Montgomery, Alabama. With the arrival of his brothers Mayer (Adam Godley) and Emmanuel (Adrian Lester), the store, re-named Lehman Brothers, expands from selling finished cotton goods to accepting raw cotton in payment and re-selling it in the north, effectively inventing the term “middlemen.” (There are nods to the slave-labor production of the cotton and a reference to it being a “crime,” but a deeper exploration would be, one must acknowledge, another play entirely.) Various endeavors follow, until, having morphed into a financial-services and investment company, they move to NYC and the rest, we’ll say, is history. They weather the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression and prosper through World War II manufacturing and post-war real estate investments, continuing on a roll until the 2008 bankruptcy of the by-then fourth largest financial institution in America.

A well-populated history it is. About the same number of characters as in “Lackawanna Blues,” twenty-five or so, are variously portrayed in “The Lehman Trilogy” by that three-brother trio of actors. Among the characters they inhabit with minimal costume change and maximal skill are the principals’ sons and grandsons; their clients, enablers, and deniers; even several women and wives. All played out on Es Devlin’s revolving-cubed set and with live-piano accents (Candida Caldicot), “The Lehman Trilogy” is a tour de force. Not just of acting (although surely that), but of live theater’s unique ability to not just show rather than tell, but to explore a stirring, wide-ranging, fascinating tale by…well, by showing.

Through January 2 only at the Nederlander Theatre,208 West41st Street. Schedule and ticket information: www;

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