You Can’t Imagine Where IMAGINING MADOFF Goes

Untitled design

In a time when so many dramas and musicals are just Wikipedia articles transferred to dialogue, Deb Margolin hasn’t taken that easy – and boring — way out.

Her IMAGINING MADOFF – as in Bernie – doesn’t tell us that investment advisor turned prisoner #61727-054 was born on April 29, 1938 in Queens and spent his teen years as a lifeguard, blah-blah-blah.

No – Margolin takes us to three different times and three different settings in the life of this criminal. She’s made good on her title by literally imagining Madoff with her fine imagination.

Dara Wishingrad’s set is a triptych. One third shows us Madoff pacing in his cell with the determination that if he walks forcefully enough, he’ll be able to sprint out of prison.

He muses on various incidents from his past. “When I told my first lie to my mother,” he says, “I cried for two days.” As time went on, we see that Madoff made a spectacular recovery as a liar.

Jeremiah Kissel — who rather resembles an aging Pal Joey — has a semi-devilish smile as he continues to be in denial. Instead of confessing, he reveals that one of his favorite songs is “Money, Money” from the CABARET film. A beloved TV show? Why, WHEEL OF FORTUNE, of course.

That can only go on for so long, and the grin occasionally dissolves into gritted teeth and a grim straight line of a mouth. Did Madoff’s grandfather’s obsession with “the bottom-line” inadvertently make his grandson concentrate on that rather than ethics?

And yet, there’s only one moment when Madoff alludes — rather than admits — to his transgressions. Most of the time, his non-stop rant is meant to ward off his having to face his grievous crimes. During a moment where he stops to catch his breath, Kissel is able to make us wonder if Madoff’s about to endure a heart attack. (His 4,800 former clients would certainly hope so.) And to think that he brands his brother and sons as “stupid.”

Director Jerry Heyman shrewdly has Kissel keep his hands in his pockets for much of the time – the universal symbol for feeling insecure and having something to hide. Too bad those hands didn’t stay in those pockets for lo those many decades.

The second part of the set takes us to a courtroom where “A Secretary,” as she’s anonymously non-named, testifies. If it’s all possible that a voice can sweat, actress Jenny Allen manages that. She uncomfortably recounts that in her everyday dealings with her employer “Mr. Madoff” that he was “business-like.”

That term usually means “systematical and practical,” but another meaning could be applied: Madoff was business-LIKE in that he appeared to be all-business while he really was an impostor, a charlatan and a crook.

Much of Secretary’s testimony results in “I just didn’t know.” Allen shows the awareness that Nazi leaders used this claim and that it isn’t enough of an excuse. Every now and then, she tries to be loyal to her old boss: “He didn’t kill anyone.”

Or did he? Of those thousands of victims, some who learned that they were dead broke with no chance of recoupment might well have killed themselves. Others were probably shattered to the point where they might as well have been dead.

The third set is a study which we might assume once belonged to Madoff. Woodward and Bernstein’s THE FINAL DAYS is in the bookcase; is this a sly comment that Madoff will soon be in his final days of freedom?

Actually, the study is the domain of Solomon Galkin. Never heard of him? That’s the way Elie Wiesel — Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate winner and Madoff victim — wanted it. Margolin originally used his name and made him a character until he threatened legal action. Thus fictitious poet Galkin was pressed into service.

The two start off as friends who chat about such matters as sports. After Galkin says that baseball is a nice respite from day-to-day life which “we live by the clock,” Madoff shrugs that off. Now Madoff lives by the clock in another sense: only 120 years and eight months to go before he’s released.

Having most of the 90-minute play concentrate on their relationship allows us to really care about the poet. We’d never be able to feel for the 4,800 who were fleeced – that’s just a number — as much as we do for this one character whom we get to know well.

Being a Holocaust survivor has made Galkin a deeply religious man whose faith helps him get through life. Madoff pooh-poohs those feelings with “You’re living in a dream world.”

Financier, heal thyself!

Unfortunately, Galkin will also have faith in Madoff which offers the audience plenty of dramatic irony. Furrowed-browed Gerry Bamman brings to life an intellectual who renders to God the things that are God’s and, unfortunately, to Madoff the things that he shouldn’t render to him. Credit to Bamman, too, for speaking a good deal of Hebrew so deftly that we could almost believe that it’s the actor’s first language.

Throughout the play, Madoff directly addresses those in the first row of the modest Theatre C at 59 East 59th Street. The eager faces of the spectators show that they might well have fallen under the spell of this snake-charmer who really was the snake. That’s yet another achievement of IMAGINING MADOFF of which both Deb Margolin and Jeremiah Kissel can be proud.