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Jim McDermottDecember 30, 2021
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Assassins” and “The Lehman Trilogy” offer challenging explorations into the idea of being an American (photos by Julieta Cervantes and Mark Douet).“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Assassins” and “The Lehman Trilogy” offer challenging explorations into the idea of being an American (photos by Julieta Cervantes and Mark Douet).

Returning to live theater after two years of darkened stages, I find myself realizing once again its importance to American society. A great play or musical is a mirror held up to reveal aspects of our culture that we otherwise overlook or misunderstand. It is also a way we try to understand ourselves.

Among the many productions now up and running in New York, three shows—“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Assassins” and “The Lehman Trilogy”—offer challenging explorations into the idea of being an American. Seeing them in this Advent season, I was reminded of Dickens’s famous ghosts, warning us about where we have been, where we are and where, if we’re not careful, we may be headed. May we not shut out the lessons they teach!

The Past: ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

In late 2018, the celebrated American writer Aaron Sorkin turned one of the most celebrated stories in American letters into a new play. Starring Sorkin muse Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch and Tony Award-winner Celia Keenan-Bolger as his daughter Scout, this tale of a black man unjustly accused and convicted of raping a white woman, then shot 17 times when he attempts to escape, feels sadly of the moment. The Broadway production even sells “Trayvon” hoodies.

Sorkin tried to update the story, using the character of Calpurnia, the Finch family cook, to call out the fact that Finch is accommodating the racists in his community. But even so, “Mockingbird” remains very much a story not about the plight of Black people in the United States, but about white people “fighting the good fight.” At the end of the play, Scout steps forward to tell us her father is the most honorable man she knows, and you can feel Sorkin wanting us to agree.

Rather than a parable of American heroism, “Mockingbird” is a potent reminder of how much our past is still present and unseen.

But what about Tom Robinson, the Black man who risked his life to help an abused white woman and got murdered for it? What about Calpurnia and all the other Black members of this community, who have to live in this world? How is Atticus, sitting on his porch with his happy children, more honorable or admirable than them?

Also, what are we to make of the fact that Finch is unwilling to countenance going around the law in any way—until it involves his own family? That hardly seems honorable. And does Sorkin expect us to see it as mere coincidence that the beneficiary of Finch’s change of heart is not a person of color but another white man? Certainly he does not cast any doubt on that resolution.

Rather than a parable of American heroism, “Mockingbird” unwittingly offers a glimpse into the white supremacist thinking that continues to haunt even “good” white people. It is a potent reminder of just how much our past is still present and unseen.

The Present: ‘Assassins’

When it debuted in 1990, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Assassins” was an immediate scandal among some. It is, after all, the story of assassins and would-be assassins recounting their exploits and encouraging one another. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” John Wilkes Booth cheerfully sings in the opening number.

Perhaps more scandalous was the fact that the music, written to echo various American styles, proved to be so beautiful. “Unworthy of Your Love,” in which John Hinckley Jr. and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme sing a duet to objects of their obsession, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson, is one of Sondheim’s most delicate and beautiful love songs. “Everyone’s Got the Right,” which bookends the show, is an infectious tune filled with hope in the future. It also captures that essential promise of America, that we all have the right to chase our dreams.

Wouldn’t you know it, “Assassins” ends with the gathered cast admiring an image from Jan. 6.

Audiences and critics have been uncomfortable with the idea that the desire to assassinate a president emerges not from the demented minds of cranks and lunatics, but from deep within the idea of America. But seeing the show in its new off-Broadway production, what’s shocking is the degree to which that issue has resolved itself. Almost from the start, the lyrics and story—which have not been updated—have you thinking about the millions of Americans who say they have a right to not get vaccinated, or the thousands who stormed the Capitol building one year ago. “Everybody’s got a right to be different,” one of the leads sings. “Even though at times they go to extremes.” And wouldn’t you know it, the show ends with the gathered cast admiring an image from the January 6th attack on the Capitol.

The principles of self-sacrifice and a common good—“a more perfect union”—from which the country was formed are being fractured and replaced in many quarters with a sense of self-entitlement. There’s “Another National Anthem,” the assassins assert near the end, and its lyric is very simple: “I want my prize.” Sound familiar?

The Future: ‘The Lehman Trilogy’

Going into Stefano Massini’s three-plus-hour exploration of the history of the Lehman Brothers, I expected to find a morality tale of power and greed, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy about financial gluttons reaping the whirlwind of their unscrupulous ways. But “Lehman” is not that at all; starting before the Civil War, when German immigrant Henry Lehman first opened a dry goods store in Montgomery, Ala., and ending with the firm’s collapse in 2008, the play is actually a story about the American enthusiasm for exploration.

Lehman and his brothers Emanuel and Mayer (and later their sons and grandsons, all played by the same three brilliant actors) are frontiersmen, really, traveling into previously unimagined economic lands to see what they might find there and dazzled by the opportunities they discover—to become a broker between cotton growers and buyers; to launch a national firm that could be responsible for brokerage across multiple products; to introduce computer systems that could add capacity and, later, speed to their business.

“Lehman” is Dickens’s hooded premonition, directing us to the ruins that lie before us if we don’t consider the social crises we face.

Even at the end, when their investments are starting to spin completely out of their control (and the entire set is going round and round with them), the firm’s underlying motive remains not so much greed as the allure of opportunity. In the end, their fatal flaw is not rapacity but faith in the American project and in themselves.

Of the three plays, “Lehman” goes the farthest back in time; it also adopts an almost-biblical narrative style, with later generations repeating one another’s actions and comments in a way similar to the descendants of Abraham in Genesis. (The text of the play is filled with witty and surprising literary games and vignettes.)

And yet by its end “Lehman” feels the most like a glimpse into our future. If “Mockingbird” is the story of a past belief system that white Americans continue to refuse to confront, and “Assassins” a glimpse into the insanity that currently infects the American populace, “Lehman” truly is Dickens’s hooded premonition, directing us to the ruins that lie before us if we don’t stop to consider the social crises we face.

We may paint the Lehman Brothers as villains, distinct from and far worse than us. But perhaps in fact they are the canary in the abyss that looms before us all.

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