Monday, January 26, 2015

IMAGINING MADOFF • New Jewish Theatre

Infamous Ponzi schemer, Bernard Madoff, may seem like an improbable subject for a play, but playwright Deb Margolin conceives a morality tale of sorts in the New Jewish Theatre's current offering. With an estimated $60 billion taken from his clients, Madoff's investors suffered devastating losses, particularly Jewish institutions and charities. "Imagining Madoff" sets up Madoff (Bobby Miller) playing opposite a righteous polestar of decency embodied in a poet and Holocaust survivor named Solomon Galkin (Jerry Vogel), who is based on one of Madoff's real-life victims, author and political activist, Elie Wiesel.

NJT's versatile black box features the action running down the middle of the space with the audience on either side. The players occupy separate spaces -- Madoff on one end, in his jail cell, Galkin's study in the middle, and a court podium on the other end, where an unnamed secretary (Julie Layton) testifies to the Securities and Exchange Commission about daily interactions and confiscated records. Jumping back and forth in time, the play juggles Madoff's jail cell musings, the testimony of his blindsided secretary, and a late night conversation between Madoff and his friend Galkin, who has secured Madoff to manage the funds of a Manhattan synagogue where Galkin is treasurer. Their unhurried conversation is wide-ranging, yet whenever the subject veers into trust, morality or shame, Madoff is repelled to the point of frustration -- almost tempted to shatter Galkin's belief in decency by confessing his transgressions. Galkin valued their friendship, while Madoff just thought they were "being Jews together".

Jerry Vogel (Solomon Galkin)
and Bobby Miller (Bernie Madoff).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
At one point Galkin intimately wraps Madoff in Tefillin, leather bindings with little boxes containing verses from the Torah attached, that serve to devote the wearer's thoughts to truth and righteousness. It's an impactful scene, and one that has an unnerving effect on Madoff. Kind of like a devil realizing he's about to confront a dunking in holy water.

But of course, Miller's portrayal of Madoff is not one of an outright devil. Margolin's script provides just enough to humanize Madoff, and Miller's ease in the role, unassuming yet unrepentant, is enough to elicit pity and bewilderment, even as he's explaining his love of the power and control money affords him, or speaking fondly of his wife. Galkin is not a perfect man, but Vogel's passionate portrayal imparts a genuinely moral depth -- a man who has suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and emerged stronger, still stubbornly capable of trust. Layton, as Madoff's former secretary, becomes more and more distraught as her testimony goes on -- a victim herself, ashamed of her involvement, as unwitting as it was. These three, some of St. Louis theatre's best, excel in their roles, keeping you engaged through the play's intermissionless 90 minutes.

Jerry Vogel (Solomon Galkin).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Director Lee Anne Mathews builds the tension and uses the separation and mingling of the characters to the play's strengths. Kyra Bishop's art and scenic design, from Madoff's concrete blocked cell and piles of thick tiles, to Galkin's small, simply appointed study, to the examination room, makes for a cool playing space, with a video monitor in the exam room along with a screen for projections, often featuring Layton in a handful of scenes, illustrating Madoff or Galkin's recollections, and Kimberly Klearman's lighting design highlights the scenes in little pools of light.

Bobby Miller (Bernie Madoff).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Margolin's play, though sometimes shocking, offers no explanations of Madoff's betrayals, but manufactures an interesting look into opposing ideologies, and is grounded with strong performances. It's playing until the 8th.


Written by Deborah Margolin
Directed by Lee Anne Mathews
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through February 8 | tickets: $36 - $40
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, Sunday the 25th at 2pm & 7:30pm

Bobby Miller* (Bernie Madoff), Jerry Vogel* (Solomon Galkin) and Julie Layton (A Secretary).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Julie Layton (A Secretary).
Photo credit: Eric Woolsey
Scenic design and art by Kyra Bishop; lighting design by Kimberly Klearman; costume design by Michele Friedman Siler; sound design by Michael B. Perkins; properties design by Jenny Smith; stage manager, Emily Clinger.

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