By Sandi Durell
An encounter with the character of Bernie Madoff immediately raises red light signals that flash scoundrel, deceitful, liar, insincere . . . you know the kind, expensively dressed, big talker, know-it-all, never admitting any wrong doing. And such is this Madoff (impeccably portrayed by Jeremiah Kissel) – every tick, shake of the head and body movement screams “yes” I’m the master of Ponzi schemes, the man who bilked millions upon millions of dollars from unsuspecting wealthy and mostly elderly clients. People were literally throwing money at him, pleading for him to do what he did for their friend – double, triple my money at unheard of percentages of return. Ah, greed – takes away all sanity.
It all takes place on the small stage at The Lion Theater on Theater Row where the play, by Deb Margolin, has been extended from an initial run at 59e59 Theaters earlier this year. The stage is split into three distinctively different areas: a courtroom-witness stand, a jail cell, where Bernie paces and speaks to an unseen biographer, an office, efficiently designed by Brian Dudkiewicz and lit by Michael O’Connor
His secretary of ten years is testifying on the witness stand; she (Jenny Allen) is frightened, worried, confused, her testimony revealing the confidentiality of how business took place at the office as she attempts to not incriminate herself in any way, disavowing any knowledge of Madoff’s business practices and feeling remorseful as if, through association, she, too, might be guilty.
Madoff spends endless hours drinking scotch while visiting with his friend – poet, scholar and Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin (a formidable, yet soft spoken Gerry Bamman) in his study where Galkin is consistently quoting and questioning passages from the Bible as philosophical discussions ensue. But it’s not all of a serious nature, no . . . there’s Jewish humor and expressions, and lots of talk about sex and women as Madoff reveals himself as the womanizer and vulgar person he is. Of course, Galkin dreams and thinks about women but it never surfaces as crude.
At one point, Galkin insists that Madoff allow him to lay tefillin (wrapping the arm/hand and forehead with small box of scripture for prayer) on him so he knows what sit feels like to be bound; Galkin is continually asking Bernie to handle his personal funds same as he does for the Synagogue.
Solomon Galkin is a replacement of the original character that was to be Elie Wiesel (whose personal savings and foundation funds were lost to Madoff) when Wiesel threatened to sue because he was unhappy with how he was being characterized. If the play was going to move forward, free from potential lawsuits, Ms. Margolin had no choice but to make the necessary changes which actually was liberating and gave her more freedom to create as she explores Jewish identity. Deb Margolin is an actress, performer and activist, and founding member of Split Britches.
The play focuses on the differences between the personas Madoff and Galkin, and their similarities, raising the issues of greed and morality, religious faith and feelings of guilt. Why at one point, Madoff even thinks about unburdening himself and revealing the truth to Galkin.
As written by Deb Margolin and fluidly directed by Jerry Heyman, this is a small peek into the enormous tsunami that hit in 2008 of the largest financial fraud in U.S. history perpetrated by Bernie Madoff (currently serving 150 years in a federal prison).
Photos: Jody Christopherson
Imagining Madoff is produced by New Light Theater Project for a limited run thru November 9 at Theatre Row, 410 West 42 Street. Run time: 95 minutes