Imagining Madoff by Deborah Margolin. Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Hiding the cookies."
Robin Leslie Smith; photo: Rob Shannon
In a ninety minute drift-through of Bernie Madoff’s mind as he sits alone in a maximum security prison holding cell, we learn as much about him as most people will ever come to know about the man who ran the world’s most famous Ponzi scheme. His downstage cell is bordered on one side by the study of poet, philosopher and Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin. Far upstage a woman, Madoff’s secretary, sits in a witness box testifying before the Security Exchange Commission. Time passes irregularly in this play and our attention is directed in one direction or another, and sometimes in two at the same time.
Madoff speaks of his dreams, all erratically erotic, and his activities. He is in a confessional mood but he can never quite get around to the high low-points of his career. He talks a lot about his wife Ruthie and about his friendship with Galkin, but addressing the issues is just not his thing.
Galkin, loosely based on the playwright’s original "real" character Elie Wiesel, is a fascinating composite. Wiesel threatened to sue a Washington DC company that had planned to present the play. He and his wife had heavy personal losses in the Ponzi scheme that Madoff perpetrated on his wealthy and influential friends as had Wiesel’s charitable foundation which lost more than 15 million dollars. Combining this history with a few other people playwright Margolin has created a most interesting man, one whose faith in God and Madoff are almost identical.
Galkin is played here by Howard Green whose performance is most convincing. He tries to interest Madoff in traditional Judaism, he flirts with poetry and metaphor, he dangles honesty from the end of a stick like a carrot to attract a rabbit, but Madoff resists all attempts to bring him closer to the man who may be his biggest fan. Green is charming, tough and resilient and it is only in the final moments of the play when Madoff’s intended confession fails him that his Galkin shows even a hint of bitterness at the betrayal he has suffered. He is good in his monologues but best in his scenes with Madoff.
Robin Leslie Brown nails the secretary whose loyalty to her employer now allows her to question her knowledge, her feelings and her implied collaboration. As she testifies, Brown becomes more and more torn apart until she seems ready to fail her boss, betray complicity and ultimately to become the next victim of the man for whom she worked. Watching Brown slowly break down the insides of the Secretary (she has no name) until they are more visible than her body is a wonderful thing. Some may act from the inside out, but this fusion of actress and character lets us watch the process of emotional harikari delivered with aplomb.
As Bernard Madoff, the theater has brought in the excellent Mark Margolis. He is so much the man of the hour that occasionally you have to erase all you know about the actual Madoff because Margolis’s creation is all too real. He acts the man with an inner urgency. We know he wants to tell us something, and we hope it is the elusive honest tell-all that the tabloids would love to have. What emerges from his mind are foul dreams, lousy relationships, false friendships and not much else. In his final scene with Solomon Galkin, this faux-Madoff turns into the dishonest crook that we watched on our television screens, only seen in a more personal dialogue than was ever released to the general public. What Margolis also shows us is the charm and personality that were so clearly instrumental in convincing bright, honest people to turn over their financial affairs to this man.
Laura Margolis has done a beautiful job staging this play. The separate connections and their unions work admirably. Her actors have clearly been given the time and assisting eye needed to develop fully believable, well-rounded characters. Visually she has created a time/space warp that gives all three full-reign to appear at will in each other’s special arenas without ever breaking with the basic reality of the world created by the playwright.
Margolis is aided by a fascinating receding tunnel set designed by John Pollard who is helped terrifically by lighting designer Andi Lyons. Whatever work that has been done in Hudson during the rehearsal period has been seamlessly incorporated into this final product.
One of the best one-act dramas of this season (and three are loads of them this summer), so far, "Imagining Madoff" is a must see for any true theater enthusiast or Madoff fan.
Howard Green; photo: Rob Shannon
Mark Margolis; photo: Rob Shannon
Imagining Madoff plays through August 7 at Stageworks Hudson, 41-A Cross Street, Hudson, NY (the train from NYC stops right there, so come on up!). For information and tickets contact the box office at 518-828-7843 or go to their website: www.stageworkshudson.org.