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Theatre in Review: Imagining Madoff (New Light Theater Project)

Jeremiah Kissel, Gerry Bamman. Photo: Jody Christopherson.

If you're going to call a play Imagining Madoff, you're going to have to do a little, well, imagining. Deb Margolin's play delves into the mind of a notorious criminal -- a king of fraud whose Ponzi scheme left thousands of investors bankrupt -- and comes up with not much at all. Imagining Madoff is conceived as a kind of triptych, alternating scenes of Madoff, in prison, talking to an unseen journalist; one of his secretaries testifying in court; and -- the main event -- Madoff and Solomon Galkin, a deeply religious poet and academic, as well as a Holocaust survivor, in a long night of whisky and rumination. It's a three-way gabfest that produces surprisingly little insight.

Madoff would seem to be a prime subject for dramatic investigation. A seemingly fabulously successful investor, he operated under a veil of secrecy, surely knowing that, sooner or later, it would all come crashing down, exposing his crimes. In the meantime, however, he lived like a rajah, spreading philanthropic largesse and bringing his sons into his corrupt operation. How did he do it? How could he do it? What was it like to know that, in the end, he would have to be caught out? What did his wife and sons know? Years after his arrest, these questions continue to fascinate.

The Madoff presented by Margolin is garrulous and more than a little loutish, filled with conversation that only circles the ugly, uncomfortable questions that continue to hover, unanswered. He begins with a long treatise on an old joke ("How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb" that establishes the pattern of verbal flights with little intellectual ballast. Much of his dialogue is written in a repetitive staccato that is the functional equivalent of stuttering. Waxing poetic about his career, he says, "I didn't really care that much about the money...I did it because of the movement, somehow. There was the music of it. Moving, moving, moving. In movements." He adds, "The money moved fast, it was under the surface, hard to see, like salmon spawning. I always thought of fish. I thought of people trying to catch fish." And, just to make sure that we get the point, he says, "It's simple and beautiful to watch money replicate. My son, studying science, we read out of a book the way viruses, the genius of viruses, remake other cells in their own image. They live by making other cells turn into themselves. Money can do that, too." This, I submit, is a powerful lot of writing for such a flimsy yield.

In another passage, Madoff confides to the journalist that he once dreamed his penis was a vagina "that had folds, really, it looked like a wallet. It was a wallet. Pink. Nothing stored in there yet: empty pink wallet. Waiting. And it spread out in folds. One of those painters made roses like vaginas. Mine was a wallet. Not a flower. I'm sick of all the flowers. Flowers make me think: funeral. Vagina makes me think: wallet." (I hope he didn't share this with Mrs. Madoff.) None of this aids the cause of clarity; most of it has a numbing effect.

The Madoff-Galkin scenes are, I think, at the heart of the problem, for if drama was going to happen, it would have been in their exchanges. Interestingly, according to Colleen P. Eren's Bernie Madoff and the Crisis: The Public Trial of Capitalism, Margolin's script originally "revolved around a fantastical conversation between a fictionalized Madoff and Elie Wiesel." But Wiesel, who, like other Madoff clients, lost everything, denounced the play and threatened to have it shut down. Thus, his character was transmuted into Galkin; we'll never know how accurate was the portrayal of Wiesel, but Galkin is a master pontificator and cardboard saint, conceived for maximum contrast with the grasping, acquisitive Madoff. The playwright isn't bashful about wielding Galkin's Holocaust-survivor status like a club, as if Madoff could come off any worse. In one particularly lurid sequence, Galkin describes his outrage at a photo of a woman's corpse in one of the camps; next to her is her baby, futilely trying to suckle. Madoff has a nightmare on this theme, centered on a mother-and-child funeral, which causes him to experience an orgasm. Instead of confronting the everyday facts of Madoff's wrongdoing, the play is marked by a constant reaching for symbols and allusions that often seem weirdly off-topic.

Under Jerry Heymann's fidgety direction, the cast talks, talks, talks about some of the most reprehensible events of modern history without making any of them interesting. Jeremiah Kissel's Madoff has a sweaty, desperate quality that makes it hard to believe he was ever a Master of the Universe. Gerry Bamman's Galkin is unfailingly unctuous and a bit of a bore; he can make a simple statement sound like a policy paper. Jenny Allen, as the hapless secretary, delivers her lines in a single note of anguished sincerity; she does have the one really affecting speech, in which she recalls one of Madoff's elderly female clients being crushed to learn that her savings had vanished.

Production values are pretty basic, with set designer Dara Wishingrad cramming three playing areas into the tiny Theater C, but only just. Kara Branch's costumes, Michael O'Connor's lighting, and Andy Evan Cohen's sound design are all acceptable.

But rather than trying to understand its strange, unhappy, and morally compromised protagonist, Margolin writes around him, performing a series of literary curlicues and growing increasingly tongue-tied as she struggles to say something meaningful. This is the second play I've encountered about the Madoff family; the first was Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola, which focused on a fictionalized version of his wife, Ruth. It, too, was a wan and excessively chatty affair. Is there no one who will do dramatic justice to these monstrous characters? -- David Barbour

(7 March 2019)

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