The name of the play is, after all, “Imagining Madoff,” so we can take a lot of the dialogue and situations with a grain of salt. But there’s no doubt that this evil man did what he’s been accused of and we have that voice of truth interjecting the play at intervals in the form of his secretary and her testimony before the Securites and Exchange Commission. This helps keep us grounded as we enter the playwright’s version of what Bernie Madoff and one of his high profile clients may have been thinking and saying during their encounters leading up to the biggest Ponzi scheme of all time.
It’s easy to see how this film-flam artist conned very influential A-list clients into trusting their money to him as he promised returns of astronomical proportions. But that’s what a Ponzi scheme does- it shows unlimited profits that encourage the clients to roll over their new found riches until finally they discover that they’ve gone bust and the Ponzi scheme operator has become wealthy.
Speaking of A-list- premiere acting and directing guru, Bobby Miller plays Bernie Madoff with charm that oozes out of every pore while we see- through his actions and thoughts- what a soul-less and conniving schemer he really is. Friend or foe, he treats everyone the same way. Even one of his best friends, Solomon Galkin (a thinly disguised version of noted author, lecturer, philosopher and champion of the Jewish cause Elie Wiesel), becomes a target as he begs to be brought into Bernie’s world. Trying to discourage him and even on the brink of revealing his scheme to him, Madoff finally gives in and takes his friend’s money.
As we’re “imagining” what conversations may have taken place, we see the clever Kyra Bishop set design stretching through the center of the playing space with audience members on both sides. Divided into Madoff’s prison cell, the home of Solomon Galkin and the witness stand of the SEC, Kimberly Klearman’s lighting design points us into the various scenes while a screen behind the secretary occasionally brings us visual reinforcement of what’s going on during these imaginary dialogues and inner thoughts of those involved.
In a reunion, of sorts, of the late, great Theatre Project Company, Jerry Vogel joins Bobby Miller on stage as the direct opposite of Madoff in the form of Solomon Galkin. Discussions of religion, faith and good versus evil surprising erupt during their conversations. Even in those “voices in the head” moments that both experience throughout the play, we can see how this is truly a battle of forces at each end of the spectrum. Vogel and Miller together on stage is electric. Subtlety is the key to their performances as there are no big moments but small, intimate and telling moments that work off each other and their philosophies. It’s a lesson in acting that young and old actors alike can learn from.
Rounding out the cast is as wonderful performance by Julie Layton as Madoff’s secretary. Though never moving from her seat on the witness stand, she delivers a knock-out punch with insight’s into what she and the countless clients must have felt about Madoff and the ultimate shock of his eventual conviction. Director Lee Anne Matthews keeps this extended one-act moving despite the sometimes overly-heavy dialogue from playwright Deb Margolin. Matthews has the touch to keep this stream of consciousness feeling easy to follow as we jump from one moment to another.
The two gentlemen discuss everything from baseball (Dwight Gooden) to the story of Abraham as they unintentionally get caught up in this whole good versus evil discussion from various viewpoints. Not sure if Madoff was really as clever as some of the things that come out of his mouth in this play, but it’s fascinating when he states that he’s “telling the truth in a false way.” And, although Miller delivers the dialogue in a crisp manner, his Madoff drawl prompts him to state at one time that “even my face mumbles.” Some of the dialogue does tend to bog down at times and the playwright doesn’t really explain the unusual scene when Galkin ties up Madoff with leather pouches and straps- evidently a Jewish prayer ritual called phylacteries. In the hands of these three pros, however, “Imagining Madoff” is a fascinating, if disturbing, look into one of the most cold-hearted criminals in recent history.
This look into the mind- imagined or not- of Bernie Madoff makes for truly gripping theatre. Catch “Imagining Madoff” at New Jewish Theatre through February 8th. Call them at 314-442-3283 for tickets or more information on “Imagining Madoff” or the rest of their season.