Imagining Madoff

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 9, 2014

Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in the New Rpertory Theatre’s New England premiere of ’Imagining Madoff,’ continuing through Jan. 26
Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in the New Rpertory Theatre’s New England premiere of ’Imagining Madoff,’ continuing through Jan. 26  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Deborah Margolin's play "Imagining Madoff" is a voluptuous work, the equivalent, in writing, of thick, stout, grippable material that wants to drape in rich folds.

The play has three characters: Bernie Madoff, the billionaire businessman whose conviction for fraud unfolded in the wake of 2008's financial meltdown; a nameless secretary to Madoff who answers to a board of inquisitors as to the goings-on in Madoff's office, and her knowledge of his misdeeds; and Solomon Galkin, a fictitious Jewish poet and scholar whose life and work has been forever colored by early life experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. This character originally was named Elie Wiesel; in actuality, Wiesel, as an individual, was hard hit by Madoff's thievery, as was Wiesel's Foundation for Humanity. (Wiesel was unhappy at being made into a character for the play, so the name was changed.)

The actors who portray these roles in the New Repertory Theatre's New England premiere of the play throw themselves into the roles and invest themselves just as enthusiastically into the pleasure the work takes in words, themes, and concepts. It's not just that every word feels sculpted and every scene shaped with exquisite care and passion; it's also a matter of how Margolin spins out threads belonging to a number of discrete topics and then draws them all together into a single shapely mesh. Sex, power, greed, ethnic identity, religious wisdom, trust and betrayal -- each element is handled deliberately, but with a naturalism to the work's ebb and flow.

Jeremiah Kissel portrays Madoff in the New Repertory Theatre's production, which runs through Jan. 26. He's presented as a classic sociopath: Smart, charming, able to win the confidence of others, and utterly enthralled with the idea of not just triumphing over others, but annihilating them. Describing how he caught a salmon right out of a river with his bare hands, Madoff gloats at how he's interrupted the fish's journey to spawn; then, describing the enthusiasm with which he ate the fish, Madoff falls into an intense, terrifying reverie: "He's dead, he's dead, he's dead!" Madoff's joy stems from more than his own corporeal nourishment: He's thrilled to have destroyed another living creature.

Joel Colodner as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff
Joel Colodner as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

This being his mindset, it's curious how Madoff describes resisting the urge to visit similar annihilation on Galkin (Joel Colodner). Much of the play takes place in flashback, in a dialogue between the two men prior to Madoff's disgrace. As they sip scotch in Galkin's study, an evening punctuated by mediations on Jewish law, theology, and history unwinds. Galkin stands in for the entire Jewish community that Madoff, in real life, defrauded with an immense Ponzi scheme -- a deception made possible, in part, because of Madoff's own Jewishness and philanthropic contributions. Galkin pleads with the financier to take him personally as a client and Madoff, his conscience mysteriously pricked, struggles against his own predatory nature.

Peppered throughout the play are soliloquies by the jailed Madoff, who seems to be talking to a journalist or biographer. He holds nothing back -- not his flights of remembered exhilaration, nor his contempt for those who play by the rules of civilization. He admits to everything and apologizes for nothing. As a poster boy for the excesses, the recklessness, and the full-steam-ahead exploitation that led to the meltdown, Madoff is a perfect choice: He's a monster, but one with such enormous energy and verve that even in disgrace he's magnetic. If Galkin personifies an ancient, persecuted culture newly ravaged by one of its own, Madoff, as a character, summarizes a modern culture in which winners don't simply take all; they dance with inordinate glee on the bones of their prey.

Adrianne Krstansky as A Secretary, and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff
Adrianne Krstansky as A Secretary, and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Also sprinkled throughout the play are the secretary's (Adrianne Krstansky) words of testimony. In actuality, Madoff's personal secretary was charged and put on trial; here, facing judicial inquiry, the secretary seems also to be a victim, someone as entranced and fooled by Madoff as the rest of the world, and as shocked and horrified to discover the truth. Her conscience isn't merely pricked by her former employer's misdeeds; it burns. The secretary starts out as professional, almost businesslike, in providing her testimony, and ends as one big, throbbing exposed nerve, throbbing with anguish and self-recrimination. She knew nothing; she did nothing to anyone; but all the same she holds herself, in some degree, to blame.

And Galkin? He's worldly, and yet also otherworldly; his study is replete with books and furnishings, all of it in slight disorder. He's seen the worst of human nature, and Madoff's true character, once it comes to light, cannot be a complete revelation to him -- surely, he's witnessed how capably and maliciously people can consume one another? But we never see Galkin at that moment of revelation. Rather, we see him in a full flight of optimism, during a time when he believes that Madoff is flawlessly correct and ethical. The purity of his faith and convictions is, in itself, something Madoff disdains: The belief in a perfectly moral man, Madoff scoffs, is the sort of thing that "gets you murdered in your bed." And yet, Galkin also touches whatever shred of human decency Madoff possesses.

Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff
Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

It's a twisted, complex relationship, almost Hegelian in nature, and the production never loses sight of those complexities. But neither does director Elaine vaan Hogue allow the play to get too fraught, or too monochromatic; the raw material may by heavy in an almost luxurious way, but vaan Hongue knows how to keep it airborne, playing with its intricacies in clever and insightful ways. The scenic design by Jon Savage is constructed of books that seem to fly from Galkin's study, arcing overhead and then creating a stack that defines Madoff's cell right down to the bars. On Galkin's side, the books are drawn from all sorts of studies; on Madoff's side of the stage, in his cell, they are all legal texts. God's law, the space seems to hint, is much like the human mind itself: lateral, fuzzy, broadly accommodating of many overlapping intellectual provinces. Man's law, by contrast, is narrow, uniform, literal, and rectilinear. The question all of this poses is what sort of being Madoff, now caged by (and within) Man's law, might be. Is he angelic in the sense of the fallen angels -- which is to say, demonic; supremely gifted, and yet also supremely self-involved, with no sense of obligation or concern for others? Or is he simply a more concentrated form of the famed "banality of evil," the human inclination toward apathy, though in this case selectively and effectively focused?

When addressing the topic of sexuality, Galkin calls it the "sweet side" of the human animal, before warning that the animal within us also has a savage side. (For Madoff, sex is much like eating that luckless salmon: A matter of conquest that feeds appetites far more savage than those of the body.) Perhaps, one thinks, Madoff is neither ape nor angel, but rather beast: A predator whose lithe movements take place by darkness, and whose frenzies have little to do with mentality or ethics even though those things might be enlisted later on to provide a rationale for the slaughter.

Most striking is the way in which Madoff declares that his sins never had much to do with money. Even in jail, he exudes an air of satisfaction: He doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. To the world at large, he's proven himself a swindler of the most dangerous sort; the lie itself seems as much the point as the spoils. But in his own mind -- the heaven that his self-regard makes of his incarceration -- Madoff is the victor: "Fuck you," he says dismissively, and the infuriating thing is that's exactly what he did to his investors. He can serve his time, but they're still out an awful lot of money.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.