Scott Klavan: The I HATE AMERICA Plays

Art by Mark Wagner

Broadway reviews by Scott Klavan

Girl From the North Country
Belasco Theatre, November 20, 2021
The Lehman Brothers Trilogy
Nederlander Theatre, December 18, 2021

This is a review of two Broadway productions that has nothing to do with Covid in New York. That may seem a relief. But the two shows, both created and directed by Europeans, and in one case, performed by overseas actors, contain a different kind of virus. It’s easy to dismiss or overlook what you might call the thematic worm, or bug, embedded in both of these plays, because they are both intelligently conceived, strikingly staged and acted. But, after being initially taken with these slick productions, the unsavory through-lines began to gnaw at this reviewer, souring both experiences.

Not to be (too) cute about it, the shows are: Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, featuring the songs of Bob Dylan; The Lehman Trilogy, adapted by Briton Ben Power from a book and play by Italian Stefano Massini, directed by Brit Sam Mendes. The former show uses over twenty of Dylan’s songs to illustrate the story of struggling Americans in Minnesota during the Depression. The latter has three actors tell the sprawling saga of the Lehman Brothers, pioneers of 19th—20th century U.S. finance. The virus, as it were: a disdain for America, and, in addition, one particular immigrant group that is portrayed as having taken advantage of the American financial system and by so doing, poisoned its way of life.

Girl From The North Country originated at the Old Vic in London in 2017 before it moved to the Public in NYC in 2020 and then Broadway. It is set in a failing 1934 Minnesota boarding house run by Nick Laine (Jay O. Sanders), a big, bluff man guilt-ridden from a childhood tragedy, whose wife Marianne (Mare Winningham) has developed dementia. There are various boarders, including boxer Joe (Austin Scott), on the run from the law, widow Mrs. Neilsen (Jeannette Bayardelle), Nick’s extra-marital lover, and a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Burke (Marc Kudisch and Luba Mason) with a developmentally disabled adult son (Todd Almond). Nick and Marianne, too, have a son, Gene (Colin Bates), an aspiring journalist waylaid by alcoholism, as well as an adopted African-American daughter, Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), now pregnant, who they try to marry off to affluent but much older white neighbor Mr. Perry (Tom Nelis); Marianne instead falls for boxer Joe.

Conceptually, the inclusion of Dylan’s songs is inventive and colorful and, throughout, the pieces are sung well and soulfully by the all-American cast, particularly Winningham, Scott, Almond, and Sprawl. But the story is a drab litany of woes that lacks one moment of humor, happiness, or victory on the part of the characters. Nobody can catch a break here: Nick’s marriage becomes a nearly impossible burden, as Marianne acts out erratically and embarrassingly around the guests. His lover, Mrs. Neilsen, supposed to come into money from her late husband, finds there’s no help on the way. Mr. Burke snaps under the pressure of raising his problem son and an atrocity follows. All careen from disappointment to despair to desolation. The play drags itself through two acts.

While Bob Dylan songs have never been known as jubilant Jazz Hands toe-tappers, every piece is twisted here to be sad and fatalistic. The lyrics to “I Want You,” while somewhat ambiguous, are at least about, uh, desiring someone for love and sex; in Girl, it becomes a forlorn ode to loss, warbled by the Laine’s son Gene to a girlfriend that has left him for a better prospect. Yes, “Forever Young” has irony in it, but it is also a tribute to a someone admired so much that the singer ironically wishes the person could overcome the inevitable passage of time. On the stage, it’s a dirge; all heartfelt connection is gone. Then, suddenly, Dylan’s song “Hurricane” appears, for no apparent or effective reason: maybe because the song is about the unfair racist incarceration and trial of 1960s middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter for murder, so, yes! it’s downbeat enough for the show! Every song is performed at basically the same tempo and in the same physical presentation. Most of the cast troops on, blasts it out mournfully, then, defeated, troops off.

It’s fine to write a tragic piece and the Depression wasn’t a barrel of chortles, but the doleful nature here becomes tiresome, undramatic. Tragedy is only tragic if there is a counterbalance, something worthwhile to seek that is thwarted. If Romeo and Juliet could take-or-leave each other, the ruination of their affair wouldn’t register. Girl From The North Country doesn’t truthfully reflect life as it is lived, nor utilize Drama’s representation of life to any profound result. Yes, we all suffer, we often fail, and we all die, but people are resilient: even in dire circumstances, real people do fight back, strive to overcome, and find satisfaction in very small things. (Dylan himself is still out there performing at 80, playing large and small venues alike. He will presumably play until he absolutely cannot anymore, or is dead.) As everyone in Girl is fallen with no chance of forgiveness or redemption, as there is no pursuit of anything positive, the show becomes a theatrical black hole, and a self-indulgent one at that.

Okay, but what about the big-shot pronouncement at the top of this review: this Hating America thing? Well, I asked myself at the end of the play: why did Dublin-born writer/director McPherson, known for works including The Weir and The Seafarer, make the choices he made? Why is the show set in Duluth, Minnesota, in the Depression? And why are there no moments of pleasure, achievement, or joy in the entire piece? I can make an educated guess. (Yes, you say, Bob Dylan is originally from Duluth, so that one’s solved. And okay, Dylan’s songs and his performing style have often been seen as dour. But that’s a blind.) It seems to me that the playwright’s downgrading of Americana, his repeated punishments of his ‘30s Midwestern characters, are a manifestation of his absolute disapproval of America for its greed, the driving unspoken cause of the Depression.

Every character is fundamentally spoiled, dependent, and inept. When the play’s kind-of narrator (an Our Town knockoff played by reliable veteran Robert Joy) relates the after-play experiences of the characters, every single person is portrayed as failing in the future as well! (I was really hoping son Gene would at least get a good job on a newspaper, but, he joins the Marines and goes to World War II and…you know…)  Nick’s continuing care for suffering Marianne is portrayed as an albatross rather than something admirable; his cross to bear for his childhood misdeeds and present sexual affair. Never mind Mr. Burke’s gutless violent act against his own disabled son. Excellently played by Marc Kudisch, we see it coming a mile away. Most important, nobody in this Depression time has any money, and that’s what ruins Americans’ integrity. Screwed by the arrogant overreaching of the leaders of the Stock Market, they/we can’t live or love properly without cash; it’s what defines us. The play ends with the whole cast singing Dylan’s Pressing On, from his 1980 Christian-influenced album Saved, as if we’ve been watching martyrs, but it’s too late to look at them as anything but useless sad-sacks.  Why press on? This group? Why bother?  

By the way, to use Bob Dylan’s music as a weapon to attack US capitalism is funny: in 2020, Dylan sold his entire song catalogue to Universal Music Publishing Group for an estimated $300 million.

The Lehman Trilogy has similar, and different, issues. The play starts with the arrival of young Jewish Henry “Lehman” (Simon Russell Beale)—a name invented by immigration officials—in America from Bavaria/Germany in the 1840s. He is soon joined by younger brothers Emanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley). They settle in Alabama, and start a modest local business in clothing and fabric, then cotton trading, making a living off the backs of slaves in the southern states. After the untimely death of Henry, the two remaining brothers head to New York City. While the Civil War interrupts the cotton profits, they start trading in coffee and other products, becoming brokers, “middle men,” for several different national companies. The ambitious Lehmans help invent the concept of the Stock Exchange, a central hub trading invisible shares in companies rather than physical goods; their investment strategies achieve huge monetary gains. Time passes and Emanuel’s socially awkward but driven son Philip runs the company successfully in the first decades of the 20th century. Heading into the post-WW II era, the Lehman Brothers Co., and the men themselves, start aging and fading. Aggressive unprincipled trader Lew Glucksman, of Hungarian-Jewish background, wrests the family company from Philip’s son Bobby in the late ‘60s. Lehman Bros. continues in name only and the last version disappears in the financial disaster of 2007-2008.    

The three actors, all from England, (Adrian Lester replaced Ben Miles from the first US presentation) brilliantly portray dozens of characters through the years. While the play is essentially a recitation of facts, the actors and director smartly use the highly mic’ed stage to create a new kind of Bravura Acting: bravura acting. Meaning: the characterizations of young and old Lehmans are varied, but vocally and physically small, subtle and totally relaxed, lacking the outsized declamatory style of star performances of the past. The play is staged within a large rotating glass box, assumingly used in the 2019 incarnation of the play at the Park Ave. Armory, a famously gigantic open space. The three act, three-and-a-half hour Lehman Trilogy, first produced in France, then Italy, and in London at the National Theatre in 2018, winning the Olivier award for Best New Play, passes quickly, without repetition or tedium, a high achievement by the whole company.      

But it’s not enough to cover the thematic flaws in the play itself, most notably a manipulative, hostile vision of America, and, in particular, of Jews, depicted here stereotypically as the architects of America’s shallowly greedy, destructively money-hungry method of existence. The Lehmans arrive from Bavaria but there is almost no information about the land they are coming from, and their status as citizens there. Why did they leave? Certainly, nobody needs to be exhaustively reminded of Germanic bigotry through the years, and maybe that’s behind this kind of silent treatment, but the vacuum provides no basis for the brothers’ motives. And what do they find in the US? Freedom of speech and religion? Never talked about. No, we only see the brothers discover an embryonic open financial system, ripe for exploitation.  

Again, it’s a question of choices. In Lehman, a series of omissions that, despite the active staging and magically versatile acting, reveal a world-view distressing and angering. But the show doesn’t own its choices. The early days of the Lehmans in Alabama portray them basically as usurers. Fair enough, but we lack the historical context of how Jews were forced into usury for hundreds of years all over Europe; usury was often the only job Jews were allowed to perform. It’s one thing to show Jews as having no choice in the New World but to follow an ancient pattern of compulsory employment, activities, and expertise in order to survive. But here, it’s disingenuous, as if the brothers naively discovered this US lending stuff, and enthusiastically realized it was a great way to make a killing; who’d’a thunk it?

(The play was originally based on a 700-page book—a novel, by the way, by Massini—and earlier versions of the play in Europe ran five hours {omg}. Maybe some of these explanatory aspects were cut to shorten the piece for restless US audiences. But why cut this particular stuff?)   

The religiosity of the Lehmans is not hidden on-stage. There are numerous scenes of the brothers praying, sitting shiva, kissing a mezuzah, etc. But, again, there is no explanation of what the prayers signify or mean; why is Judaism, why is the racial/cultural/spiritual identity of the brothers, important to them? There’s never a word about it. The term anti-Semitism is never spoken; in the scenes (quickly) focusing on the WW II years, the Holocaust never referenced. All we really see and hear from the brothers are traditionally lilting vocal intonations and: their obsession with Money. The entire lengthy play seems an indictment of Lehmans/Jews as the inventors of a new destructive kind of belief: the pursuit of profit for its own sake. (One of the Lehmans’ most exultant on-stage speeches is about how the company need not worry about making or trading products anymore; they can just deal in Money itself!) This, the play implies, but doesn’t have the courage to baldly state, is enabled by the avaricious US monetary system. The outsider Lehmans cause this toxic belief to take deep root in America, solidifying it as the amoral, venal place we know today. In this capitalist land, the three Lehmans find another brother: America is a Jew.

Later, when the play depicts the Lehmans creating the modern Stock Market, the only names that are mentioned as their colleagues and competitors are Jewish ones. What, no WASPS on Wall Street? Philip’s socialite son Bobby (Godley) gets on his knees and literally licks the shoes of unscrupulous trader Glucksman (Lester) for taking over responsibility of the uncouth boisterous modern trading floor, making the family even more cash. These words and images, along with the portrayal of Emanuel’s son Philip (fantastically acted by Beale) as an oily little snake whose outer personal whininess is only exceeded by his inner ruthlessness, deal in Jewish stereotypes leading back to the Middle Ages and earlier. The Jew as slimy outsider and schemer, belonging to no country but the country of his own interests, who produces and creates nothing, only working around the edges as a powerful secret counselor, undermining the proper workings of a society, worshipping only gold.  (Not to mention that the Lehmans didn’t actually “invent” the concept of the Middle Man, as shown here. And what does it mean to invent that, anyway? The Middle Man is another amorphous Jewish Man Without A Country metaphor.)  

In the last act, the play depicts the Lehman family being basically bought out of their own company in the late 60s; only their name remained. But the story begins and ends with the collapse of the 21st century Lehman Bros. during the Crisis of 2007-2008, as though there was a direct connection from the brothers of the past to the recent debacle. Even though the Lehmans were long gone, and the business changed hands several more times, it’s as if the family had created a system that was only going to destroy itself from within; built on noxious air, it was fated to implode. After all, the 2007-2008 disaster was mostly caused by the sale of subprime loans that many of its buyers didn’t understand and couldn’t pay back. Again, regular folk getting screwed by usurers, profiting from the sale of nothing: the Jewish way.   

There’s more to rail about, but let’s stop. It’s holiday time, after all. Final observations: both Girl From The North Country and The Lehman Trilogy deal with specifically American issues, but from a decidedly antagonistic contemporary European point of view. This is okay: many if not most of the best plays, past and present, come from Europe. And go ahead, hate America; get in line. But, please, have the guts to be upfront about it. Girl hides behind the work of beloved US songwriter/poet Bob Dylan to present a US of ineffectual suckers brought low by obeisance to an abusive capitalist system. Lehman uses a mesmerizing whirlwind of movement and performance to obscure a blatantly anti-American/anti-Semitic tale of how US capitalism was overtaken by venomous Jewish mercenary greed. Both plays distract us with skilled acting/singing, staging, and dialogue to sneak the knife in from behind.

What did we ever do to the British, anyway? (Don’t answer that.)        



Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He helped to develop and directed Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth, for the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park and the Roosevelt House in NYC. He directed Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the poet Anna Akhmatova, for the On Women Festival at Irondale Center. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. During the pandemic, Scott figured out how to direct on Zoom! Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.



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