By Deb Margolin; Directed by Jerry Heymann
Produced by New Light Theater Project
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.9.19
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
by Ken Kaissar on 10.30.19
Gerry Bamman and Jeremiah Kissel in Imagining Madoff. Photo by Jody Christopherson.
BOTTOM LINE: An uncomfortable exploration of the psyche of Bernie Madoff.
“How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?” This joke appears towards the beginning and end of Deb Margolin’s play Imagining Madoff. The despicable Bernie Madoff, who wreaked financial devastation on the world, struck the heart of the Jewish world very violently, not just by being a Jew, but by swindling many Jewish charities—like Elie Wiesel’s foundation—out of millions of dollars. All told, Madoff ravaged the Jewish world to the tune of $600 million dollars, to say nothing of his other victims. In the Jewish community, he is not just a colossal embarrassment, he is reviled.
Margolin’s play attempts to enter Madoff’s psyche to imagine how a human being justifies stealing, especially from Holocaust survivors like Wiesel. Given his willingness and ability to steal from a man who witnessed the murder of thousands of Jews around him including his own family, Madoff clearly demonstrates sociopathic tendencies.
Much of the play revolves around conversations between Madoff (Jeremiah Kissel) and his friend Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman), a Holocaust survivor turned poet who constantly relays the wisdom of the Talmud to Madoff, while simultaneously imploring Madoff to manage his money. (Galkin is a fictitious figure who is clearly standing in for the late Wiesel. More on that later.) Madoff hems and haws as he finds ways to avoid squandering his friend’s money. If only the real Madoff had been tortured by such guilt.
Director Jerry Heymann delivers a serviceable production of a challenging script. Brian Dudkiewicz’s smart set design is adorned with stripes that evoke the uniforms of convicts or concentration camp inmates. Bamman and Kissel have great chemistry together and succeed at creating a sense of pathos. Unfortunately the play feels too aimless to be satisfying. It meanders between Madoff’s internal monologues, the Talmudic teachings of Galkin, and the testimony of Madoff’s secretary (Jenny Allen), a character who never inhabits the same emotional or physical space as the other two characters and therefore feels conspicuously misplaced.
While the play enjoyed a successful run at 59E59 earlier this year, prior to its current encore engagement at Theatre Row, the story of its development has been fraught with confrontation. The story goes that Margolin attempted to use Wiesel as a character in her play, and he threatened to sue her to shut the play down. Wiesel called the play “defamatory” and “obscene.” While I’m sure drawing the ire of the great Elie Wiesel was disappointing for Margolin, it was not enough to get her to abandon the project.
“How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Madoff asks Galkin towards the end of the play. “There are a thousand punchlines for that joke,” Galkin responds. “The one that works for me is six million and one...The six million are gone, and the one that’s left? He puts on the light!”
As a Jew, I find a play that uses Madoff’s Jewish identity as a framing device for his story uncomfortable enough. But when Margolin places the disgrace that is Bernard L. Madoff on a timeline with the horrors of the Holocaust, I agree with Mr. Wiesel, the result is “defamatory” and “obscene,” and maybe even offensive.
(Imagining Madoff plays at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, through November 9, 2019. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $50 - $60 and are available at newlighttheaterproject.com or by calling 212-239-6200.)
Imagining Madoff is by Deb Margolin. Directed by Jerry Heymann. Set Design by Brian Dudkiewicz. Costume Design by Kara Branch. Lighting Design by Michael O'Connor. Sound Design by Andy Evan Cohen. Prop Design by Leila Ben-Abdallah. Stage Manager is Caitlyn Annelise Dominguez.
The cast is Jenny Allen, Gerry Bamman, and Jeremiah Kissel.