WATERTOWN, Mass. — Of all the victims of Bernard Madoff, one’s heart really had to go out to the Holocaust survivors. Imagine surviving the most vile anti-Semites in history only to lose your life savings to a fellow Jew who had seemed to have taken you under his financial wing.
The most famous of these victims is Elie Wiesel and playwright Deborah Margolin made his relationship with Madoff the focal point of her smart play, “Imagining Madoff." And why not? A moral avatar and a snake, though that’s insulting to snakes. A moral avatar and a devil.
As the title suggests, this is an imaginary conversation. Too imaginary for Wiesel’s taste; he was furious with the play and Margolin turned his character into the fictional Solomon Galkin, a poet and religious scholar who’s also a Holocaust survivor. While there’s a third character, a secretary testifying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and there are scenes between an unseen interviewer quizzing Madoff in jail, it’s the meeting between Madoff and Galkin that is the meat of the play.
These kinds of imaginary meetings are an often provocative theatrical sub-genre, providing moral sparks in confrontations between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (“The Meeting”); an American major interrogating conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler about his involvement with the Nazis (“Taking Sides”); and a similar interrogation of Ezra Pound for his anti-American and anti-Jewish WWII broadcasts (“Sixteen Words for Water,” which had a fine staging at the Chester Theatre Company in 2000).
The New Repertory Theatre production of “Imagining Madoff” (through Jan. 26) is an interesting addition to the list. Galkin is schooled in the Torah and Talmud and his book-lined study is testimony to a life of the mind and the pursuit of high moral values. (Director Elaine Vaan Hogue has assembled a fine production team, including scenic designer Jon Savage.)
Madoff, meanwhile, is a secular Jew and proud of it and, in Elliot Norton Award winner Jeremiah Kissel’s skilled hands, he’s dripping with charisma. He has asides to the interviewer where he advertises his sarcastic sleaziness, but he obviously has respect and fondness for Galkin, even to the point of only taking his temple’s money not his personal funds.
The play’s high point is the debate between the two over Abraham and Isaac. Madoff compares God to Hitler, asking the old question of what kind of God would tell a man to kill his own son. And what kind of person would obey such a directive; isn’t that akin to marching meekly into the gas chamber? That’s all the Bible study Madoff needs to turn away from the old time religion.
Galkin says that religious training tells us to look at these stories from several angles, not just the obvious one, but he’s no match for Madoff and that’s what prevents the play from really taking off.
He’s never the countervailing force to Madoff and maybe that’s what bothered Wiesel. For all his talk, Galkin is really a schnook. He’s ripe for the pickin’s, as if all his learning has gone for naught. If things are never exactly what they seem shouldn’t he have had a less rapturous view of Madoff? He’s also a little too silly in the way he slobbers over “Bernie,” not realizing he doesn’t have a prayer, so to speak, of bringing Madoff back to the fold of the synagogue, never mind the path of righteousness.
Margolin might, in fact, be saying that’s what greed does to you, makes you turn a blind eye to reality even if you’re as smart as Wiesel, or Galkin. The play, though, needs more tension between the two men, not quotes from the Torah. I’m reluctant to blame Joel Colodner, who plays Galkin. Colodner is one of the area’s more underrated actors and is fully capable of standing up to Kissel’s Madoff given the right script or direction.
Which isn’t to say that this isn’t a good script. I didn’t think there was a boring moment in it and though sometimes it felt like I went to a play and a Torah debate broke out I was fine with that. Philosophical plays have their place.
In the end, though, I don’t think Margolin gets that close to what makes someone like Madoff tick. “Breaking Bad,” for one, got much tighter to the mind of a man who finds that he has the skills to bring great wealth to his family but lets that blind him to the destruction he’s doing to others — and ultimately to his family. What’s lacking for all these people who start down the wrong road and can’t turn back is a moral grounding, both for Walter White and Bernie Madoff.
That lack of moral grounding is an essential ingredient in this play, as well, but Galkin doesn’t provide the moral counter-argument in a satisfying way here, or provides it too obtusely.