BWW Reviews: New England Premiere of IMAGINING MADOFF at New Rep
Written by Deborah Margolin, Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue; Scenic Designer, Jon Savage; Costume Designer, Leonard Augustine Choo; Lighting Designer, Tyler Lambert-Perkins; Sound Designer & Composer, Edward Young; Stage Manager, Anna Burnham
Bernard Madoff needs no introduction. He was arrested on December 11, 2008, at his Manhattan penthouse after swindling $65 billion from investors in the largest Ponzi scheme in the history of Wall Street. The unparalleled magnitude and the decades-long duration of the fraud, as well as the high profile of many of his victims, combined to cement Madoff's notoriety, earning him recognition even among those who have no connection to the world of high finance. It also earned him a 150-year life sentence in prison. Obie Award-winning playwright Deborah Margolin's Imagining Madoff takes place in August, 2009, three weeks after he entered Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina.
Elaine Vaan Hogue directs the New England premiere of Margolin's morality play at New Repertory Theatre's Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. In this intimate space, she seats the audience on opposite sides of a center rectangular stage so that everyone is close enough to the action to see The Players sweat, smirk, flinch, or swallow. Although many people would classify Madoff as a monster, this is a powerful human story that explores the why, rather than the how, letting the protagonist be a witness to his downfall after the gavel has fallen. Do not confuse understanding with sympathizing with the enemy; rather, the playwright argues that we have to see Madoff as a man in order to find meaning in his horrific act and figure out what we can do about it.
Margolin employs the conceit of an imagined conversation between Madoff and one of the victims, a fictional character who is a composite representation. In her original script, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (who lost millions in the scam) served as the client in this long night of Scotch and dialogue, but his objections caused Margolin to remove his name. The rewrite introduced Solomon Galkin, poet, philosopher, and, as treasurer of his synagogue, overseer of the institution's investments with Madoff. Galkin is also a Talmudic scholar who frequently quotes passages from the ancient Jewish text during their discussions, finding uncanny commentary on the circumstances of Madoff's actions and subsequent incarceration. Madoff's secretary is a third character whose reminiscences during her testimony at a congressional hearing provide background and the viewpoint of one who was both an unknowing perpetrator and victim of the crime.
Jeremiah Kissel is charming and devilish, making a convincing argument that Madoff is at best a narcissist, at worst a psychopath. He smiles broadly and is brimming with confidence, projecting a magnetism that is hard to resist. Until he opens his mouth and boasts about his great ability to lie, his love for the art of making money, and his lack of fear for the punishment he is about to receive. Kissel's performance is utterly convincing; we never see the acting, but know that he is taking on the characteristics of a man who is his antithesis, portraying malevolence that goes against his grain. Kissel must restrain his own humanity to show Madoff's minuscule brush with regret (remorse never enters into it) and stays thoroughly true to the character.
If Madoff is the devil, Galkin doesn't know it, despite his personal experience with hell as a Holocaust survivor. Joel Colodner represents virtue and wears the white hat in the play, but he shows that his character is not without flaws or shortcomings. Despite the evil he has suffered, he believes in God and seeks answers to life's questions from the Jewish text, but he courts Madoff with a personal agenda, as well. Throughout their conversations, Colodner displays Galkin's heart, intelligence, and positive attitude, albeit with an underlying tinge of fear and sadness. He seems too smart and savvy to fall for Madoff's shtick, but he also possesses what I call the human greed gene. Kissel and Colodner share affinity that gives authenticity to their scenes together.
Adrianne Krstansky evokes sympathy for her character who, she insists, was duped along with everybody else. Her words open the play and she periodically interjects remarks spoken to an unseen body of interrogators, nervously explaining that she didn't know, but perhaps should have known, what her boss was doing all those years. Wringing her hands, gazing like a deer caught in headlights, and, at times, her voice quivering, Krstansky walks the fine line that Margolin has drawn for her. There is a not-too-veiled parallel between the secretary and the German citizens who denied knowing what Hitler was up to vis-à-vis the Jewish population, and her portrayal is informed by some level of shame and guilt.
Scenic Designer Jon Savage's artistic vision is a highlight of the production. At the far end of the Black Box, Madoff's cell is starkly suggested by a series of vertical rows of law books stacked upon each other, harsh spotlighting streaming through the "bars," aimed at his seat. This corner is connected by an overhead arc of dozens of open books to the warmth of Galkin's study, piled high with books spilling off of the shelves, an overstuffed leather chair and hassock, an Oriental throw rug, and indirect lighting. Tyler Lambert-Perkins is the lighting designer and he makes effective use of spots to focus on the characters individually and collectively. Sound Designer and Composer Edward Young contributes snippets of eerie, dissonant piano riffs to separate scenes, and Leonard Augustine Choo dresses the men in well-tailored, expensive looking suits.
There is no doubt that Madoff's crime was of epic proportion and the punishment he received was no less impressive. Still, the financial ruin he left in his wake is almost beyond measure and the lives of many were irreparably harmed. His own family was not immune, as one of Madoff's sons committed suicide two years after his father's arrest. The fact that so many of his victims were Jewish was, to use the Yiddish term, a shanda (a shame, a scandal), something embarrassing to Jews for the world to see. This may be one of the reasons that Margolin's play stirs up controversy and it was a concern expressed by some in post-show discussions. However, the playwright does her job by raising the complex moral questions, offering responses from the Jewish text, and leaving it up to the audience to interpret and judge for themselves.