Written by Deb Margolin
Directed by Jerry Heymann
When Bernard Madoff was arrested in 2008, the very DNA of the financial system was called into question. The sheer volume of the scam was staggering. Billions of dollars had gone AWOL, thousands of lives were shattered. And all the while, our trusted regulatory agencies had ignored the red flags and questionable math that characterized Madoff’s bogus business transactions. The entire world was shaken by the aftershocks of the scandal, but in Jewish circles, the Madoff debacle took on an even deeper significance. Fears arose that the image of the Ponzi schemer would be used validate antisemitic stereotypes of greedy, conniving Hebrews, and that Jews, historically a popular target of conspiracy theories, would be scapegoated for the Great Recession. More painfully still, many of Madoff’s targets were themselves Jewish, and even charitable institutions like Hadassah were plundered without mercy. Jews who had invested with Madoff were hit with a double whammy: not only did they suffer grievous monetary losses, but had to also cope with the unthinkability of being betrayed by one of their own. The police term for this phenomenon is “affinity fraud”: a category of chicanery in which a con artist uses his cultural, religious or ethnic identity to gain entrée into a specific community, as Madoff did among the well-to-do Jewry of New York City and Palm Beach.
In the aptly titled IMAGINING MADOFF, playwright Deb Margolin muses on what may have transpired between Bernie (Jeremiah Kissel) and one of his high-profile victims, the fictional poet Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman). Reminiscent of the late Elie Wiesel, whose private holdings and non-profit foundation were devastated by Madoff’s treachery, Galkin is a Talmudic scholar and a Holocaust survivor. The essence of piousness and generosity, he seeks only to do good in the world. At first, he would seem to have nothing much in common with Bernard. Yet the two enjoy talking and drinking, pondering the nature of the universe and what the Torah says about humanity’s role in it. Each man is subtly maneuvering the other. Sol seeks to enlighten his spiritually undernourished friend, while the fraudulent financier uses a hard-to-get seduction strategy, knowing that the idea of an “exclusive” investment club will whet Solomon’s appetite. For a moment, it seems as if Galkin may win the battle for Madoff’s soul after all. When he winds his tefillin around Bernie’s wrist, something odd happens. A “small perfect pain” enters Madoff’s head, as if the ancient traditions are awakening some long dormant godliness within. In the end though, Madoff returns to his old habits. He worships no god other than money, and the sacrifices it demands of him are as severe any in the Old Testament.
In between the scenes with Galkin, there are short monologues in which post-conviction Madoff, confined to a prison cell, justifies his actions to an unseen reporter. The action also shifts now and then to a courtroom, where Madoff’s secretary (Jenny Allen), seems credible as she testifies that nothing usual seemed to be going on at the office. She, too, struggles to find a moral center in a world where, merely by telling the truth, she may be defending a monster.
All three actors deliver solid performances, with Bamman’s plummy European baritone providing an effective foil for Kissel’s staccato New Yorkese. Margolin gives them plenty to work with, and the rhythm and intelligence of her dialogue keeps the audience engaged in the Galkin-Madoff relationship even though we already know the outcome.
Unfortunately, the script – though never boring – stops short of exploring some of the tougher truths of the Madoff scandal. Questions linger as to why so many of Madoff’s marks failed to look under the hood, why they chose to hand over their life savings rather than pursue a more conservative investment strategy. Perhaps Madoff seemed like the right kind of capitalist: a classically American (and classically Jewish) example of a man of humble origins rose to the top through hard work and smart maneuvering. Or was it those the lure of easy profits, the ego boost of being on the winning side, that kept his investors on the hook? Could there be a touch of avarice in all of us, even a man like Galkin? It’s understandable that Margolin didn’t want to blame the victim. But it might have been a stronger choice to fully render the duo as a yin and yang design: A quintessentially righteous man as the mirror image of a starkly immoral man, each containing a touch of its opposite.
Interestingly enough, the state with the highest per capita incidence of affinity fraud is not New York or Florida, but Mormon-heavy Utah. Yes, the Jewishness of the Madoff Experience is one of its salient features. But dramatizing its details also serves as a reminder that, in these morally muddy times, no one is same from ganeffs.
IMAGINING MADOFF continues through March 23, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY, between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets: https://www.59e59.org