“Hillel used to say: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I care only for myself, what am I?”
In the 1920s, Charles Ponzi bilked 20 million dollars out of an unsuspecting public by buying discounted postal reply coupons in other countries and redeeming them at face value in the United States. His strategy created the term Ponzi Scheme: fraud in which belief in the success of a nonexistent enterprise is furthered by payment of quick returns to early investors out of money put in by later investors.
In 2008, Bernard Madoff admitted to defrauding his “clients” out of an estimated 65 billion dollars at the helm of the largest Ponzi scheme in world history. The next year he was sentenced to 150 years in prison, a maximum allowed. Many of his almost 5,000 investors were ruined.
Much has been written about the man and his tactics. Several television miniseries were produced. This whip smart, tightly written, 2010 piece approaches everything through conscience. Playwright Deb Margolin based pivotal character Solomon Galkin – poet (intriguing idea), translator, treasurer of his synagogue, Holocaust survivor – on Elie Wiesel, writer, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost 15 million dollars to Madoff’s swindle. Wiesel was robbed of his own life savings. Threatened by a law suit should she use his name, Margolin made up Galkin who represents a moral axis.
It’s three weeks after Bernard Madoff (Jeremiah Kissel) entered Butner Federal Correctional Complex in North Carolina. He’s ostensibly talking to a journalist, stepping in and out of a warm, wrenching, nightlong confab with Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman) whom he admires so much he almost admits what he’s doing. (Moral seduction and this particular urge is wonderfully handled.)
The scholar presses Madoff to manage his personal savings, as investment for synagogue funds has been so successful. This was apparently a common scenario. Future victims pleaded inclusion.
Galkin is as rich a character as you’re likely to encounter on a stage. He liberally quotes from The Talmud and Midrash (a group of Tannaitic = teachers’ expositions on the first four books of the Hebrew Bible) disagreeing with some precepts. Hebrew and Yiddish are used and translated. Galkin expounds on the joys of baseball, understands and appreciates Madoff’s described self indulgences including lust, and refers to concentration camp experience with retrospective insight and depth of feeling that eschews overt dramatics. “You presume my humanity,” he tellingly warns his guest. Still, much of the play’s unexpected humor comes from Galkin.
Jerry Bamman and Jeremiah Kissel
“I’m uncomfortable with the Jewish faith, not the culture, but the faith,” Madoff says at one point. “…my Rabbi always said: don’t read the Torah without kishkes (guts);” the Torah is not for sissies,” Galkin replies. I assure you it’s not necessary to be Jewish to understand references, though if you are, the play offers added dimension. Every quote and statement of faith is clear – though Talmudic ones sometimes pose questions as much as suggesting answers as they’re wont to do. Faith is faith.
Pacing the stage as if being hunted, eyes and thoughts darting, Madoff reflects, “I didn’t really care that much about the money. I did it because of the movement…It’s simple and beautiful to watch money replicate…” The joke ‘How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?’ haunts him. (Later, an answer is jarring.) Talk of money and sex have the same voracious tone. Wife “Ruthie” and the life she cushioned, a single reference to his sons and a couple to childhood, a disturbing dream…
We also intermittently observe Madoff’s secretary (Jenny Allen) being questioned (by an unseen prosecutor) in court, offering a second view on naiveté and guilt. Allen palpably inhabits tremulous sincerity, fear, regret, and incomprehension. “I know he’s a monster, but he didn’t kill them…” In fact, a devoted employee, she never pressed for answers. We understand.
The deftly written play ends well, just where it should, posing questions that echo. Deb Margolin is a craftsman of high order.
Both Jeremiah Kissel and Gerry Bamman are outstanding. Were one not up to the other, dramatization would suffer. Kissel is credibly passionate, driven, and suffering without overdoing any aspect despite regular eruptions. The Queens accent is a fine touch. Bamman appears wise-but fallible, tired, and endowed with affecting grace. His physical unsteadiness is dignified.
Director Jerry Heymann moves his cast seamlessly from one environment to another and skillfully within more limited environs. His three players evidence different speech patterns and physical attitudes. Timing is impeccable.
The terrific Set by Dara Wishigrad manages to fit Gulkin’s old school, woody office, a jail cell, and a court stand in confined space with atmosphere and recognition. Projected photographs, blurred, one assumes, for legal reasons, add veracity to testimony. Leila Ben-Abdallah’s Props notably include a bottle of Macallan Scotch Whiskey.
Kara Branch’s Costumes are spot on.
Photos by Jody Christopherson
Opening: Jeremiah Kissel
New Light Theater Project presents
Imagining Madoff by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Hermann
Through March 23, 2019