When even the set of a play is a metaphor (a canopy of accumulated wisdom of the ages culminating in prison-bar-like literary columns), you know you’re about to have an intriguing theatrical experience. In New Rep’s current production of “Imagining Madoff”, a 2010 work by Obie-winning playwright Deborah Margolin, it’s a sign of significant things to come. Add three of Boston’s finest actors, Jeremiah Kissel (as Bernie Madoff), Joel Colodner (as Solomon Galkin) and Adrianne Krstansky (as Madoff’s unnamed Secretary), a perfect trifecta. Margolin (whose Obie Award was given to her for Sustained Excellence) is known for one-woman plays, as one of the founders of Split Britches, a political feminist troupe. Here, as expertly directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, she has created, as she herself puts it, “not a biography (but) an imagining”. She assumes (probably correctly) that we are all familiar with Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme crimes, which helps the audience to place the play in its historical context.
A little familiarity with Judaica wouldn’t hurt either, as this is an intensely Jewish work. Originally in part about Elie Weisel, the perceived threat of possible litigation forced Margolin to change the name of one character from Weisel to Galkin. This may have resulted in a more broadly applicable story, as Galkin now represents all of Madoff’s victims in the Jewish community who had believed him to be a true philanthropist to their charities and causes. What the author focuses on is not the well-known facts of his duplicity, but the lesser-known, possible motivations for why he did what he did. She dispenses with the usual demonization of the criminal in order to get to the “why” of his unspeakable evil. In the course of the play, the work by all three actors is painstakingly detailed, each very much in character every minute, and wonderful to experience. So is that extraordinary Scenic Design by Jon Savage, as well as the other technical contributions including the Costume Design by Leonard Augustine Choo, Lighting Design by Tyler Lambert-Perkins and Sound Design and Musical Composition by Edward Young. It’s an ensemble piece on every level.
The play starts rather disconcertedly with Madoff’s frivolous joke about how many Jews it takes to screw in a light bulb; It’s not until some ninety minutes later that we hear Galkin’s serious response. The action takes place in August 2009, just weeks after Madoff’s imprisonment. First in monologues (by all three characters), then in verbal jousting between Madoff and Galkin, the story unfolds. Since this is not a piece of history but one of “liberating imagination”, as Vaan Hogue puts it, the interplay is a series of contrasts. While Madoff claims he did what he did not for the money but “for the movement…money replicates”, Galkin loves baseball because of its slow pace where there is no clock. Where Madoff says he has no retrospect, Galkin sees trust as a sacred thing, half of which is “retrospect, to know from the past that certain things were right and good and will always be so”. As is the case with many a Talmudic scholar, Galkin is never at a loss for aphorisms that are appropriate for virtually any discussion, such as “life is for planting trees in whose shade you never expect to sit”. Madoff too has his epigrammatic moments, such as “there’s been death in my life and there’ll be life in my death”. Madoff describes the importance of words, whereas Galkin stresses the multiple possible meanings of words, as debated in the midrash (the ancient commentaries on biblical texts).
This study in contrasts is particularly revealing in the debate about Abraham and his willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac, especially if one is aware that it would be just a year later that one of Madoff’s sons was to commit suicide over the disgrace of their crimes. While Madoff confesses that he fooled his fellow Jews, and others, partly by his keeping quiet, he admits he had a nightmare in which his own silence is the worst part; Galkin believes that poems steal meaning from the silence around them. While Madoff, a self-described secular Jew views phylacteries or tefillin (containing verses from the Torah to be worn during prayers) as just so much bric-a-brac, Galkin keeps a set from his father prominently placed in his treasured library.
What becomes clear is that what Madoff was guilty of was the kind of stealing condemned in the Torah, that of deception, the stealing of someone’s mind. The playwright quotes the poet Mark Doty: “We live the stories we tell; the stories we don’t tell live us”. Margolin has created a fascinating view into the shallowness of a conman and the depths of his damaged soul. Putting judgment aside has promoted understanding (but not forgiveness), and the greatest price Madoff must pay is that he has to live with himself.