Meet Mitchell Fain in The Lehman Trilogy; Tony's 2022 "Best Play"
Sat. September 23, 2023 by Matt Inawat
I play 20 different people, and, with very few exceptions, we don't have any props or costumes to let you know that we simply have to morph into them and tell that story
Meet Mitchell Fain in The Lehman Trilogy; Tony's 2022 "Best Play"
TimeLine Theatre Company's Chicago premiere production of the Tony Award-winning play THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is now playing at Broadway In Chicago's Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place and has been extended by overwhelming demand until November 26, 2023.
Told in three parts over one evening, THE LEHMAN TRILOGY begins on a cold September morning in 1844, as a young Jewish man from Bavaria stands on a New York dockside dreaming of a new life in the new world. He is soon joined by his two brothers, and an American epic begins. 163 years later, the firm they establish—Lehman Brothers—spectacularly collapses into bankruptcy, triggering the largest financial crisis in history. Weaving together nearly two centuries of family history, this theatrical event charts the humble beginnings, outrageous successes, and devastating failure of the financial institution that would ultimately bring the global economy to its knees.
The cast includes three talented actors with extensive roots in Chicago's renowned theatre scene—Mitchell J. Fain, Anish Jethmalani, and Joey Slotnick.
We chatted with Mitchell J. Fain who tales on the role of Henry Lehman. Fain is a working actor, director, and storyteller in Chicago for over 30 years and is known for his eight years starring in David Sedaris' THE SANTALAND DIARIES at Theater Wit, among numerous other credits.
Mitchell Fain as Henry Lehman in The Lehman Trilogy; credit: Joe Mazza / brave lux, inc
MI: (Matt Inawat, GoPride) Hi Mitchell, let's talk about the play itself, which has won five Tony awards including best play. Give us a little background about the play.
MF: (Mitchell Fain) The play is an adaptation of a very big novel based on the history of the Lehman Brothers, starting in 1844 and ending in 2008. It was adapted into a play, translated into English, and then it was premiered in the west end and then eventually made it to Broadway where it won all the Tony Awards. And it covers a lot of ground. It's dense and funny and smart and poetic; and the more we dive into it, and the more we are comfortable inside the language of it, the more remarkable it feels.
MI: You mentioned the story has been told so many different ways. How do you feel the stage version brings a unique perspective compared to say, a film or a documentary?
MF: Well, I think it makes it human. The playwright makes sure that we're human beings in the middle of this.
There's so many facts that could be obscured by the humanity behind it. You know, there's so much animus towards the financial institutions and the crash and the harm that was caused by it and, and rightly so, but the play reminds us that it was started just by three brothers who had to leave Germany because it was not good to be Jewish in Germany in the mid 1800s.
Remember this is not the same exodus from Europe in Germany before World War II. We're talking about the middle of the 1800s. It was already not good to be Jewish. And so they had to leave and they came here with nothing.
And so the whole part of the play is that we get images of 2008 and then we go immediately back to 1844 and we're told that it's just this kid, this 22 year old kid, who comes over with one piece of luggage, a good pair of shoes and nothing else. So it reminds us of the humanity of this story behind all of this.
MI: The story is told on stage in minimal setting; how did that influence or challenge your performance and shape the storytelling for you?
MF: We really have the most extraordinary designers. Our set designer, Collette, has created such a multi-tiered set that incorporates all of the detritus of a hundred something years of office spaces and building spaces. So our set is as if every possible thing that could have been left behind in an office for a hundred and something years is at our disposal. So we get to use all of those things in non literal ways. And so it's in a way like a huge playpen; it's huge playground for us.
MI: Tell us about your journey to the show. What drew you to this production?
Mayer (Slotnick), Henry (Fain), and Emanuel (Jethmalan); credit: Joe Mazza / brave lux, inc.
MF: I remember reading about it when it was making a splash, and being very curious about the history of it. The name is so famous, the Lehman Brothers, those images from 2008 of the feds going into the Lehman Brothers office. A friend of mine worked across the street from it and I remember her sending me a picture as it was happening like, "oh my God, look at this, what's happening."
And I remember reading around that time that the reality was that there actually were no Lehman family members involved in the bank by 2008. And I thought, whoa, ok. Well, that's probably it, that's probably a piece of information that most of us don't know. And I think that drew me to it because I thought "what, what happened, why is it still called Lehman brothers; who were the Lehman brothers, you know, who were the actual brothers?" And that's what this play is about.
Who are these Jewish immigrant brothers who created something that lasted that long? And what happened in the 20th century that the family were no longer involved?
MI: Did you do any additional historical research to get into the role? What resources did you find most insightful for that?
MF: We are very lucky because I'm working with Timeline Theater here in Chicago. I'm sure every theater in the city would have loved to get the rights to do this play here in Chicago because one of the interesting things about this is that instead of sending out a touring production that's a copy of the Broadway production, which is often the case with hit Broadway shows after they stop their Broadway run, this show is allowing cities, particularly theater cities, to do their own organic version of it.
So in that way, Timeline got the rights to this play. Timeline is a mid-sized very reputable theater and they're known for their mission statement which is to do plays about history.
I did some research and started to dive into the book; to be honest with you, I had 177 pages of a play to read so I didn't finish the book. I had to memorize 177 page play.
Because timeline is a fantastic theater, we have two dramaturgs who created packets of information for us about the history of the Lehman Brothers, about the history of Germany, about the history of America in 1844 in New York, these ports where they came in. We had video references and the head of the Jewish studies Department at American University fly in from DC to be with us. We have two dialect coaches. So Timeline provides the resources and it's impressive.
MI: How has this role and everything that you've learned influenced your own perspective on history, finance or the human experience?
The Lehman Trilogy; credit: Joe Mazza / brave lux, inc
MF: In this particular situation, a three act play with only three actors in which we're mostly on stage the whole time, all three of us. Think about memorizing 177 pages. It challenges the skill of being able to go back and forth between being a storyteller and being within a scene, right? The difference between narration and dialogue, it challenges our ability to create many characters.
I think I play 20 different people, and, with very few exceptions, we don't have any props or costumes to let you know that we simply have to morph into them and tell that story so I can go on and on. But that's the way every moment of mine and my co-stars' professional lives have led up to the skill set needed to do this particular play.
MI: Amazing! How do you believe this play speaks to today's audiences, especially in the context of like economic challenges and the nature of capitalism?
MF: I think ultimately this play really is about the American dream and what happens to that dream, what has happened to that dream and its effect on immigrant populations.
The play is ultimately about, you know, it starts about three Jewish brothers, but the play eventually becomes about other immigrant families who then produce the children who then take over the bank. So this really is a play about the immigrant experience. Someone comes here with ideals and this package that we've sold about the American dream and the various ways that the journey to that how capitalism has replaced tradition and even religion in our culture. Capitalism, money, is the American religion.
So it's the way in which immigrant families and cultures respond to that; what draws people here. And I think it's relevant because I'm not sure the American dream is the thing that we all thought it was. I think we're still selling the idea of that.
But as most people know, living in the current economic times with the 1% it's not the same thing. And what effect does that have on immigrant families?
I'm from a family of immigrants. All of us are family of immigrants, so ultimately, I think it's incredible, especially we're living in a time right now where the whole concept of immigration is getting so twisted by a certain part of our population. And we forget that we're all immigrants. and that the "American dream," this idea - I put the American dream in quotes, is an idea that may or may not be attainable anymore, but we're still selling it.
MI: You've been an actor and director in Chicago for about 30 years?
MF: I moved to Chicago in 1992. On a Monday in September. Actually, this is going to be my 31st anniversary. I moved here on a Monday night in September 27th and on the September 28th. I booked my first job in Chicago.
MI: When did you realize you were passionate about storytelling? And how did you get your start?
MF: I think I was passionate about storytelling. Even as a kid, my mother used to call me Mighty Mouth because I loved to talk and tell stories.
I got my professional start right after college. I got an amazing job with a theater company in Providence Rhode Island, which was a children's theater company called Looking Glass Theater. Years before the Chicago company - they're unrelated but they have the same name. The Looking Glass Theater in Providence Rhode Island used to go into public schools and integrate an entire classroom into a play. And so by the afternoon you would see your classmates in this play. And I remember seeing that when I was a kid and I was blown away and I always wanted to be in it.
I like to tell stories. I like to entertain my relatives. I grew up in a family of very funny old Jewish ladies. I was very close to my great aunts and my grandmothers. So they used to like prop me up and have me perform and I loved it. I love making them laugh.
I don't think it's a coincidence that my first job out of college was literal storytelling. I find it incredibly satisfying to tell a story to people filtered through my own lens and my own experience and my own sense of humor such as such as it is for about eight years. I did an adaptation of uh the adaptation of SantaLand Diaries by David Sedaris. And it was just me on stage by myself for 75 minutes telling that story. And I'm very comfortable there.
About The Lehman Trilogy and Broadway in Chicago
TimeLine Theatre's production of THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is its Chicago premiere. The Broadway production of THE LEHMAN TRILOGY was met with extraordinary international acclaim. The Guardian proclaimed it "a kaleidoscopic social and political metaphor" and "an intimate epic about the shifting definition of the American Dream." The Chicago Tribune praised it as "a masterwork" and The New York Times as "a vivid tale of profit and pain." Vanity Fair raved that it is "true blockbuster theatre that will hold you captive until the final curtain call," with Time Out New York saying "it leaves you dazzled." And The Wall Street Journal declared that THE LEHMAN TRILOGY "surpasses all praise."
TimeLine's Chicago premiere of THE LEHMAN TRILOGY is now underway. Opening Night is Wednesday, September 27 at 7:30 p.m. Performances run through November 26, 2023 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago.
Individual tickets for THE LEHMAN TRILOGY are on sale now and range from $35.00 - $110.00 with a select number of premium tickets available. Tickets are available for groups of 10 or more by calling Broadway In Chicago Group Sales at (312) 977-1710 or emailing GroupSales@BroadwayInChicago.com. For more information, visit BroadwayInChicago.com or timelinetheatre.com.