This is among the reminisces the infamous swindler Bernard Madoff’s long-time secretary recounts about him in playwright Deb Margolin’s somewhat stiff though entertaining three-character fantasia Imagining Madoff. This employee is testifying at a Securities and Exchange Commission hearing in 2009 when the play takes place.
I really…I had…I had no idea. I should have. I hate myself, I should have, I should have known, I had no idea. He was just so particular, so secretive, so organized. He smelled good. He had some…he always smelled good.
Sitting in front of a microphone throughout the presentation, raised up above the stage on a cube and wearing business attire, Jenny Allen is entrancing as this befuddled factotum. With her croaky vocal delivery, wide sad eyes and haggard presence, Ms. Allen exquisitely provides comic relief and an innocent everywoman perspective with her aching sincerity.
Employing his rumbling deep voice, his thinning hair slicked back and veering from snarling cheeriness to reflective introspection, Jeremiah Kissel swaggering in a power suit gleefully gives us the ballsy Madoff we desire. Tossing off expertly pronounced Yiddishisms in his rants, Mr. Kissel fully embodies the archetypal striving lusty Jewish kid from Queens who worked the angles and became a macher. Kissel attacks the role with outsize relish as if it were Roy Cohn in Angels in America.
Obie-award winning New York City stage mainstay and ubiquitous film character actor perhaps most notable for the Home Alone movies, Gerry Bamman is drolly commanding as the elderly (fictional) Polish Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin. He is an acclaimed poet and synagogue treasurer who greedily ensnares himself in Madoff’s larcenous web. Lumbering about due to arthritis in his musty study while pouring out shot after shot of vintage Scotch and philosophically holding forth, the glittering Mr. Bamman delightfully offers his playful characterization of a sly Talmudic sage.
A grand highlight of Bamman and Kissel’s rich interactions is when the decidedly secular Madoff reluctantly agrees to Galkin’s putting tefillin on him. These are parchment portions of The Bible encased in two small black leather boxes attached to leather straps. One is wrapped around an arm and the other around the forehead. It appears to visualize a theme of Margolin’s, that of the wicked clashing with the righteous.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) was one of Madoff’s prominent financial victims and was originally a character in Imagining Madoff when it was written in 2010. Mr. Wiesel read the play, objected to his inclusion in it and threatened legal action and so its 2010 premiere in Washington, D.C. was cancelled. Though it was thought unlikely that Wiesel would prevail in court, Margolin rewrote and renamed the character “Galkin.” In the years since, it has been performed regionally in the United States and this is its New York City debut.
One night we were working late, and he confessed to me that he always wanted to be on Wheel of Fortune. The TV show. Wouldn’t that be funny? To see Mr. Madoff on Wheel of Fortune!
Margolin’s thoughtful dialogue is often amusing, the characters are vividly drawn, and the structure is a simple framework that gets stale due to the lack of plot. It’s 90 minutes of variations of Madoff soliloquizing to an unseen reporter, him chatting with Galkin and the secretary chiming in with her testimony. The only semblance of suspense is minor and is whether Madoff will take Galkin into his special fund.
There have been television movies, books and documentaries about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme that was wisely covered by the media. Admirably eschewing laborious exposition, Margolin imparts just enough shards of factual detail. She focuses on giving a wild analytical depiction of Madoff’s psyche that somewhat compensates for the lack of narrative momentum.
Besides spurring on the cast’s roaring performances, director Jerry Heymann’s smooth staging achieves physical fluidity as Madoff goes back and forth from his prison cell to be with Galkin. There, Mr. Heymann manages to come up with lively stage business and natural movement.
A small barred window that draws focus and an iron cot represent Madoff’s chamber on an area of the contained stage as starkly rendered by scenic designer Dara Wishingrad. For Galkin’s study, despite minimal space, Ms. Wishingrad magically conjures up the vision of an émigré’s rambling perhaps Washington Heights apartment with an assortment of wood furniture, faded upholstery, crammed book shelves, paintings and bric-a-brac.
Lighting designer Michael O’Connor has the secretary lit with eerie harshness and Madoff in fiery orange at times while cunningly illuminating the rest of the production. Occasionally clattering ambient effects are skillfully realized by Andy Evan Cohen’s sound design. Costume designer Kara Branch creates just the right look for the characters with her corporate stylings.
Imagining Madoff is ultimately an enjoyable theatrical character study channeling that fascinating scoundrel and alluding to his misdeeds.
She had a lot of money with him. When she found out it was all gone… She cleared her throat. Then she didn’t say anything, and the phone rang, and when I went to answer it she started crying very…it sounded like a sea bird. Like a calling. High-pitched, like a word. Oh, I’ll never forget it.
Imagining Madoff (through March 23, 2019)
New Light Theater Project
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.newlighttheaterproject.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission