“I think it’s hard for some people to humanize the devil,” playwright Deb Margolin says.
She’s talking about “Imagining Madoff,” her play about fraudulent financier Bernie Madoff, presented by the New Repertory Theatre beginning Saturday at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.
Madoff defrauded investors of billions and destroyed the lives of many of his victims. Some people say such men should simply be forgotten. But Margolin says the reasons for examining his life are the same as for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers believed responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
“There are those who believe in He Who Should Not Be Named. ‘Let us not speak of the Marathon bombers.’ ‘Let us not humanize Bernard Madoff.’ But I think we ignore their humanity at our peril. Because then we are subject to the same privations again,” Margolin says.
The bulk of Margolin’s play imagines one night’s Scotch-fueled conversation between Madoff and a friend, just before his scheme unravels. This Madoff is sly and funny at times, brusque at others, and clearly feels the pressure of the looming collapse of his Ponzi scheme. The fictional friend is a Holocaust survivor and poet named Solomon Galkin, who is a philosopher of sorts and the treasurer of a synagogue.
Trying to understand Madoff is not the same as sympathizing with him, Margolin says by phone from her home in New Jersey. “It’s not glorification. It’s investigation. It’s ‘Who are we? How does this happen? And what can we do about it?’ ” she says.
“Forensic psychologists work very hard on profiles of serial killers so they can root them out and prevent that in the future,” she says. “The quote-unquote humanizing of Bernie Madoff? He is human, he doesn’t come from outer space, he’s one of the same species of homo sapiens we are. And for that reason, when we take a look at the nature of people who have committed heinous crimes, we do ourselves a service.”
Jeremiah Kissel plays Madoff and Joel Colodner is Galkin in this New England premiere, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue, in the Arsenal Center’s Black Box Theater. Adrianne Krstansky plays Madoff’s secretary, whose testimony at a congressional hearing occasionally interrupts their conversation.
Kissel isn’t judging Madoff, he says, because that’s not his job as an actor.
“In doing the work, I started to absolutely fall in love with him,” the actor says. “He’s a natural man, he’s not troubled by issues of morality. It’s all id. So it’s kind of like being in the room with a cougar. He does what he does.”
That doesn’t mean, Kissel says, that he or anyone else involved with the show has forgotten the victims: “If I wasn’t playing this, I’d be going, ‘Are you out of your freakin’ mind? This is Bernie Madoff, look at what he did!’ That was not a pleasant experience for anyone who was touched by what he did — it was horrific.”
In the rehearsal room upstairs at the Arsenal Center, the stage is represented by a long rectangle of tape on the floor. Kissel sits at one end in a chair that for now represents Madoff’s jail cell. At the other end, Colodner sits amid a jumble of furniture standing in for Galkin’s book-lined study. The audience will sit on both sides.
Vaan Hogue compares the design to a tennis court, “and whenever you seat an audience like that, part of the play is actually the other half of the audience responding too.”
The play has its own controversial history. In Margolin’s original script, Madoff shared the stage with Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who reportedly lost millions to Madoff’s scam, both personally and from his foundation.
‘The quote-unquote humanizing of Bernie Madoff? He is human, he doesn’t come from outer space, he’s one of the same species of homo sapiens we are. . . . [W]hen we take a look at the nature of people who have committed heinous crimes, we do ourselves a service.’
“For a dramatist, what would be a more amazing moral exegesis than to put this man who is known for addressing evil in a room with evil that he can’t see?” says Margolin.
As Wiesel is a public figure, she did not need his permission, but she sent him a draft of the play anyway in 2010, before it was produced, thinking he would understand and even appreciate it. Instead, he sent a letter calling the play offensive and defamatory.
“I only intended it in the most respectful way, and obviously he did not feel that way about it,” says Margolin, who was “surprised and disappointed.”
A planned premiere in Washington, D.C., was called off. Fearing an expensive legal battle, and not wanting to upset Wiesel anyway, Margolin rewrote the play. She replaced Wiesel with the fictional Galkin but left most of his dialogue intact. The revised show debuted in Hudson, N.Y., later that year and eventually played Washington.
“It was a one-day rewrite,” she says. “I think the play is better now than when [Wiesel] was a character in it. He was only a character insofar as he was the sort of moral avatar of rectitude in dramatic contrast with Bernard Madoff’s status as the moral avatar of evil. No longer do we need to consider the biography of this public intellectual. We can look at the human elements of this more simply.”
Galkin is so smitten with Madoff’s phony returns on his synagogue’s investments that he keeps asking him for the chance to invest his personal savings as well. And the swindler, knowing that his scheme will soon come crashing down, tries to dissuade him.
“The point of any of these exercises is to get to a much deeper place, a more classical place,” Kissel says, “where people go home not thinking they saw a play about Madoff, but thinking about the past, the future, the present, good, evil, my needs, the world’s needs, sorry, suffering.”
Margolin says she doesn’t personally know anyone who lost money to Madoff, and the play doesn’t delve into the details of the scam. But a number of things she wrote from her imagination were later revealed to be true, she says.
“The play culminates in the Abraham and Isaac argument: Why would a man kill his own son just because some voice told him to? And of course, Bernard’s son committed suicide. He did sacrifice his family,” Margolin says. “This is not a biography, it is an imagining. And in imagining, we often hit on the truth.”Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.