By Elizabeth Ann Foster
“How many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb?” Bernard Madoff (Jeremiah Kissel) is obsessing over the punchline he can’t remember it as Imagining Madoffbegins. “How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One!” but he cannot remember the punchline to how many Jews it takes. Immediately Madoff pushes all your buttons. We cannot even talk in micro aggressions, this is macro. Madoff is in your face taunting and no one will leave feeling the least empathetic for him.
Madoff is responsible for 65 billion dollars disappearing. The largest Ponzi scheme in the history of the world. Pleading guilty and then disappearing to a North Carolina prison. Not a word, interview or explanation was ever offered. He was sentenced the maximum of 150 years. Imagining Madoff written by Deb Margolin is an attempt to recreate Madoff and make sense of it all. Margolin creates a menacing Madoff who is calculating, cold and a protagonist you hate entering the theatre and do so even more when you leave.
The stage is divided into three parts. Bernie in jail sitting on a stool behind bars discussing his life with an invisible biographer. The middle stage is an older woman Bernie’s secretary (Jenny Allen) seated at a table. And the remainder of the stage is a recreation of Solomon Galkin’s (Gerry Bamman) study. The lights above each actor go on and off as they deliver monologues. The bulk of the 90 minutes is a discourse between Madoff and Galkin. Originally Margolin had based the character Galkin on Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel. Wiesel threatened a lawsuit calling the play “obscene” and “defamatory.” Margolin fictionalized the character, changed the name and kept intact dialogue and interactions. It is up to each audience member to decide if the exchanges between Galkin and Madoff are “obscene.”
We do not get much from Madoff’s secretary by way of explanation or insight. She was on a different floor in the office building and had little to no interaction with him.
From Galkin we get the perspective of an investor that trusted a fellow Jew. Galkin was proud to be helping his synagogue flourish with their investments at Madoff’s firm. After the horrors of the Holocaust Galkin feels an immense kinship and almost debt to Madoff for turning his community’s finances around and at one point wants Madoff to take on his own private investment. Galkin’s world is the Holocaust and his survival. Somehow on a spiritual level he cannot quite connect with Madoff. But is the performance by Kissel that makes Madoff that much more detestable. His embodiment of pure evil. A hard part to repeat nightly. A hard play to sit through if you were a victim of either the Holocaust or the Madoff scandal and not recommended if you survived both.
The play concludes with Galkin responding to Madoff’s question of how many Jews does it take to change a lightbulb, “Look on the computer! Pick the one you like the best! That’s the one that’ll work for you! The one that works for me is six million and one!” Madoff says he doesn’t get it. Galkin replies “You don’t get that joke! You don’t get that joke! Bernie! The six million are gone, and the one that’s left? He puts on the light!”
Imagining Madoff – Written by Deb Margolin
With: Jenny Allen (the secretary), Gerry Bamman (Solomon Galkin), Jeremiah Kissel (Bernard Madoff).
Directed by Jerry Heyman; scenic designer Brian Dudkiewicz; costume designer Kara Branch; sound designer Andy Evan Cohen; prop designer Leila Ben-Abdallah; production stage manager Caitlyn Annelise Dominguez; wardrobe assistant Paul Haesemeyer; stage manager Emma Burns; assistant stage manager Linda Elizabeth; lighting designer Michael O’Connor. Theatre One @ Theatre Row 401 West 42cnd Street NY NY firstname.lastname@example.org. October 17 through November 9, 2019. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday 2 p.m. Sunday 3 p.m. Recommended for 12 and older, children under 4 not permitted in theatre (strong language). Tickets $52.25.Running time 90 minutes with no intermission.