Jeremiah Kissel has been one of Boston's best actors since, well, forever. He's been a leading man at both the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater. He picks his spots every year and this season he picked the New Repertory Theatre's small stage for Deborah Margolin's "Imagining Madoff," a journey into the mind of the much-despised swindler. A past winner of the Elliot Norton Prize for Sustained Excellence, Kissel added another Elliot Norton award this month for the Madoff performance. It reopens for a short run May 28-June 3 at the Boston University Theatre's Studio 210, next door to the Huntington Theatre Company mainstage.
I asked Kissel what it was like to play Madoff. Did he try to find the humanity in the man or revel in a juicy role? Here's his response:
"With every character I try to start my work with similarities. Where am I LIKE him? Based on what he says, does. Margolin's Madoff is lustful. I, like most men, certainly have that covered, so it's a starting place. It's also a very strong human motivation, some might even say the strongest, others even perhaps, ultimately, the only one. So that's where it began for me. Next step, for most of us, is control. This character does not give in to it. So this is our main difference and the one that is such fun to live out onstage. There's no need to edit or control my desire! I recall saying in rehearsal I felt no need to apologize or feel shame; that I felt like a leopard caught with his bloody muzzle buried in the belly of a prostrate gazelle. An animal interrupted in its ordinary life and proper behaviors. What's to be ashamed of? I am nature. It is very freeing to be Margolin's Madoff for an hour or so every night. I am all power, no shame.
"Perhaps this is what most attracts us to those villains; unlike us Walter Mittys, they pursue their wants and yearnings with joyful abandon!"
Here's my review of the production:
The Evil Of Bernard Madoff, Onstage At New Repertory
The Evil of Bernie Madoff
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.