There’s a moment of thunderously noisy silence toward the end of Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff that humanizes the unscrupulous title character like nothing the playwright has invented for him to say.
Bernie Madoff (Rick Foucheux), the callous Ponzi-schemer whose $50 billion fraud was to ruin the lives of thousands of clients worldwide, has been arguing scripture all night with one of his investors—Holocaust survivor and poet Solomon Galkin (Mike Nussbaum), a character who shares Elie Wiesel’s moral rectitude but is no longer named Elie Wiesel, thanks to a threatened lawsuit that ultimately prevented the play from opening Theater J’s 2010-2011 season (“Who’s Afraid of Elie Wiesel?,” 5/28/2010).
Madoff and Galkin have been rambling through lots of subjects—the skill of Jewish pitcher Sandy Koufax, the sound-deadening qualities of thick carpeting, the reason for wrapping one’s arm and head with phylacteries in remembrance of God’s intercession in the time of Exodus—but at this moment, they’re arguing over the story of Abraham, whose willingness to slaughter his only son on God’s instructions strikes Madoff as monstrous. What profits Abraham in blindly following God’s law, wonders the financier? Surely disobedience is the more moral response. Faith in God, responds Galkin, underpins all of morality; trust is the basis of society.
Both men are shouting though they’re sitting inches apart, their argument increasingly clamorous until, as Galkin continues to rail at him, Madoff abruptly falls silent, his eyes glazing in horror as he realizes he was about to reveal his own calumny to this honest, scrupulous man. To win the argument about trust, he was about to tell him that he could not be trusted.
The theatrical effect of this moment in Alexandra Aron’s staging is electric. Somehow the Jewish elder’s thunderous rant stops registering as polemic and translates only as sound and fury once the crooked financier falls silent. It’s Madoff’s thunderstruck quiet you’ll feel you’re hearing as he turns away and stares out at the audience.
The need for quiet has been almost a mantra for the onstage Bernie Madoff, who spends most of the play remembering from his prison cell this encounter with Galkin from some months earlier. The playwright imagines Madoff speaking repeatedly during that meeting of the value of not attracting attention, of being prominent and available, but unobserved. “Money makes everything softer,” he says at one point. “Everything quiets down.” At another, he notes that women, including his wife, tend to be “desired but not noticed,” Pausing for a second, he adds, “That’s me.”
And in real life, it was. Madoff’s investment services were desired by everyone, from his neighbors to European royalty, yet his fleecing-all-comers approach attracted little attention and no censure for a full decade even after whistleblowers warned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that he was a fraud. When the 2008 stock market crash finally brought his financial empire tumbling down, and his clients and their many charities with it, he again frustrated those who hoped a trial would provide answers as to what he was thinking while ruining all those lives. Rather than say, he simply conceded everything, without apparent shame or remorse.
Getting inside the head of this unrepentant bounder is a worthy playwriting endeavor, and Margolin’s strategy—placing him in opposition to a morally upright figure of equivalent stature, with essential facts brushed in by Madoff’s mortified secretary (Jennifer Mendenhall) during testimony at an SEC hearing—is intriguing, at least in theory: monster and saint, each reduced to human scale so audiences can take their measure. In practice, Imagining Madoff feels a bit less than the sum of its conversation, providing diversion and theology where an audience will be expecting illumination.
The performers do their part to shed light on the characters. Mendenhall has perhaps the toughest assignment, finding a flesh-and-blood secretary in snatches of exposition spoken in response to unheard questions, but the character’s pain is palpable by the end, both at what she’s witnessed and at what she’s felt. Foucheux makes Madoff a persuasive cad, at once charming and coarse if still essentially unreadable, while Nussbaum puts sparkle in Galkin’s wit and conviction in his moral arguments.
Still, dwarfed by designer Lauren Helpern’s towering library setting (Madoff steps in and out of a jail cell that’s been slightly recessed into the floor), they seem not insignificant exactly, but inconsequential. It’s not really fair to blame this diminution on the changes forced in the playwright’s original conception by the threat of legal action. But with two world figures locking horns, you’d expect a battle verging on the Shakespearean. With one world figure (who’s being deliberately diminished) and a garrulous synagogue treasurer who sounds like Arthur Miller’s wisecracking junk dealer in The Price, the stakes are considerably lower, even with that secretary’s testimony (“I know he’s a monster…but he didn’t kill anyone”) ginning things up from the sidelines.
And it doesn’t help that so much of the 90-minute play (I saw one of the final preview performances) feels like filler. When Madoff notes idly that Galkin is stooped with age, and Galkin responds cheerily that “I find things to like about looking down,” we’re not really on-point about anything these particular men have in common. Nor when Galkin, a baseball fan, says he likes the Mets partly because their name is “the past tense of meets.” Nothing wrong with engaging in a bit of play on the way to more serious discussion—Tom Stoppard’s made a career of it—but it’s nice when the play illuminates the play.
Here, it’s mostly off-topic, or on-topic in ways that aren’t really made clear in script or production. That discussion of Abraham killing his son, for instance, gains considerable resonance if you know that the real Madoff’s elder son, Mark, committed suicide on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. The ramifications—a con man talking of trust, a son who trusted his father, a life silenced—would amplify that thunderous quiet exponentially.
But you’ll need to carry that information into the play with you. It’s nowhere in the evening at Theater J.