Imagining Madoff By Deb Margolin Directed by Alexandra Aron; At Theater J to Sept. 25 In the controversial play, a real-life monster's character is lost between the lines.

Dial M for Mendacious: Bernie nearly reveals his Ponzi scheme in Imagining Madoff’s climactic scene.

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.

Our Readers Say

Just responding to your comment that "the play does not illuminate the play," perhaps you have not considered that Mets being the past tense of meets, as Galkin says, and then continues: "something that happened once and could happen again someday," directly illuminates the play. Galkin was victimized once during the Holocaust, and is about, unbeknownst to him, to be victimized again, this time by Madoff. It bears directly on the play. It foreshadows the coming loss. Have you read this play? Also, I think it's interesting to note that the Mets text was written in advance of public acknowledgement that Madoff had ruined the Mets organization financially; as the Abraham and Isaac struggle Madoff has in the play was written in advance of the suicide of Madoff's son. Looking backwards from our current lives into this moment in Madoff's life is one view this play asks the audience to seek perspective from and think about. And as we listen to Madoff talk with pride about his two sons, as he does several times in the play, and watch Madoff struggle with Abraham's willingness to kill Isaac, doesn't it illuminate the nature of Madoff's character that, as we now know, his behavior was largely responsible for the death of one of them? Sometimes fiction knows things before history does. Sometimes fiction shows us what we might have seen coming.

One last thing: Madoff's silence that you mention in the first paragraph of your review IS something I invented for the character to say.

The phrase "thunderously noisy silence" should have been a warning, but I went on anyways. Then we get a thunderous rant next to a thunderstruck response and again that thunderous quiet. If you're trying to achieve some kind of meaningful resonance through repetition it isn't working.
Da. Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata. [snort] I like it, Bob. It lands on at least two levels.
The playwright commenting on the review?!? Really!? Classless and tacky. Grow up Ms. Margolin.
John T, criticism is a conversation. Mondello said what he said, and now I've said what I had to say. I could have written him privately, but now my response to his remarks can be as public as his remarks about me. In an ideal world, criticism is not just what one man says; it's a cultural conversation. I always write to critics. I think it's an important dialogue. A grown-up dialogue. So thanks anyway for the advice.
Oh stuff it John T. Really, we treat critics as if they are somehow the sacred sage's of theatre, when in fact, many of them don't even have any real theatre credentials; its just one person's opinion. The people are better served to trust their own judgement and engage in conversation about what they've seen, especially with the playwright; otherwise, they are merely Sheeple, which apparently you are content to be. Baabaabad.
Hey John T-
Gai kakhen afenyam
(Look it up, big guy).
Just contributing to the convo - should a critic be expected to read every play he reviews? I consider them proxies for audience members, who (especially with a relatively new play) will not have read and dissected the text before sitting down to an evening of theatre.

Cool topic D. Taggert. Gut reaction arguments against reading: as you say, some value in critic speaking to the likely audience experience; also some critics fall prey to a directorial mindset of how it ‘should’ be done that can be exacerbated by reading in advance; finally, the production should speak for itself. Gut reaction arguments for reading: the critic is ideally not the mean (both meanings, ha ha, but mainly the statistical one) audience member, but in the category of the most knowledgeable, alert and mentally receptive/flexible (receptivity and flexibility based on experience and breadth of knowledge) audience member – we do not, after all, quote audience members in our post-opening advertising. So reading in advance could arguably be part of that alert, knowledgeable receptivity. It can also help to prevent bonehead errors, but I don’t suppose critics can avoid those with any more frequency that the rest of us working stiffs.
Kathleen, thank you for your thoughtful remarks; one more thought: what about consulting the script AFTER you've seen the play, if you are a critic whose remarks about a work will be of record? So, first you see the play as any audience member might, and then, corroborating or contrasting your thoughts and feelings with a knowledge of the script, you might become able to distinguish between elements of your own experience in the theater: lighting, set design, text, sound, acting, etc.? Thus, before making a comment not unlike Mr. Mondello's, that the word-play has nothing to do with the play, e.g., you can check the text and see if your experience as an audience member is in sync with your experience as an evaluator of a play as written. Since we tend to rely on critics for careful analysis, this is a possible way a critic might enrich himself as to how a play endeavors to signify, since the critic is a public speaker about a given work.
I think reading after is a perfect solution -- I think many of our critics, like many of us, have multiple gigs though, and it might be hard to find the time to give a careful read post-show and also meet the print deadline. That's just a guess.
Mr. Mondello making wild leaping conclusions in his reviews is somehow new to people?
Thank you, Kathleen and Ms. Margolis and M. Taggert, for contributing to a useful conversation.

For what it's worth: When I talk to student critics about reviewing new plays, I tell them that whenever possible, they should do exactly what seems to be the aggregate suggestion above -- see the show blind, as an audience proxy, and then have a look at the script, the better to distinguish what the director and the actors might have brought to (or taken away from) the show.

That's a perfect-world suggestion, of course. The real world is somewhat inhospitable to that best-practice model.

For instance: I like to think of myself as a thoughtful critic, but the fact is that I've just now, at something past midnight after a long Monday, filed my review for this week, a twofer addressing THE HABIT OF ART and THE HEIR APPARENT.

I saw both plays at their press performances on Sunday. I'd love to say that, along with attending a 2 o'clock matinee and a 7:30 evening show, I'd had time to read both scripts and parse those fine details. But as Kathleen mentioned, I (like Bob Mondello) do have a day job, at NPR.

At that day job, today, I assigned six movie reviews, wrote a freelance contract, mediated a dispute between a stringer and our finance department, had a meeting with a (very) senior executive who could fire me at whim, clarified new functionality on the NPR website for my direct supervisor, and edited both a dispatch from the Toronto Film Festival and a feature about the Broadway revival of FOLLIES.

I may also have stopped to eat lunch, but I forget.

For what it's worth, I *still* think I did justice to the Bennett and the Ives, both of whom are writers I admire enormously.

This is all by way of saying that -- to me, anyway -- those who suggest that serious theater critics write theater criticism just for the fun of lobbing snark at people who make theater? Those people couldn't have gotten it more wrong.

We write because it's how we engage with theater. We write because we care about theater, in our way, as much as the people who make it. We write because we'd be heartbroken if we didn't.

(Viz: the above? I'm a *lucky* theater critic. I've been doing this for 16 years, and I get paid a reasonable sum to do it. I know people who want desperately to do it, and who don't get paid much at all. They put the same hours into it. Which isn't at all fair to them, or to theater.)

The other thing I tell student critics, when I'm lucky enough to be asked to address them, is this: No one sets out to make bad theater. We know, as critics, that the production is the result of good intentions and bad luck and happy accidents and regrettable choices. It's a long, *long* road between idea and execution, and there's many a rut along the way.

But our job as critics is to engage with what we see, to try to determine what the playwright wanted to do, and to assess how well the production has served that end.

For what it's worth, I learned that from Bob Mondello.
Dear All (with the exception of the conceitedly puerile John T)-

Thank you for a great discussion! Lots of great food for thought.

To Mr. Graham, specifically on your comment, "We write because it's how we engage with theater. We write because we care about theater, in our way, as much as the people who make it. We write because we'd be heartbroken if we didn't." Sounds like an intriguing concept for a play.

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