WATERTOWN — Even in an era of breathtaking Wall Street venality, Bernard Madoff managed to make himself a byword for financial fraud. It’s an achievement of sorts.
In “Imagining Madoff,’’ now receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre under the deft direction of Elaine Vaan Hogue, playwright Deborah Margolin takes a speculative leap into the inner life of the notorious Ponzi schemer. The result is a bracingly smart and engrossing drama of ideas — albeit one with some draggy stretches — whose intellectual and metaphysical gymnastics are a perfect match for the restless energy of Jeremiah Kissel, who plays the title role.
This is probably the place to note that I’d pretty much be willing to watch Kissel read from the phone book. Ditto for his costars, Joel Colodner, who portrays poet and Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin, and Adrianne Krstansky, who plays Madoff’s nameless secretary. These are three endlessly interesting actors who consistently bring a combination of emotional force and precise technique to their roles, and “Imagining Madoff’’ is no exception.
The production is staged in New Rep’s no-frills Black Box Theater, which set designer Jon Savage has turned into a virtual cave of books: Weathered tomes are piled high against the wall of Galkin’s study, and scores of other volumes hang over the stage. At the other end of the stage are the bars of a prison cell. Madoff moves between those two worlds.
“Imagining Madoff’’ is not one of those sympathy-for-the-devil works of exculpation. The Madoff imagined by Margolin and embodied by Kissel is a ruthless and shark-like figure; even when he smiles, his eyes remain cold. But he’s not a one-dimensional one.
Waves of sadness emanate from Kissel’s Madoff as he describes how he duped his mother when he was a child: “So easy. So easy. It’s painful to be able to lie as easily as I’m able to lie. I can lie about anything. It’s like writing a story or singing a song: I just tell the truth in a completely false way.’’ At other times, his arrogant contempt for the rest of humanity is on full display: “[Expletive] you who want to punish me. I’ve punished all of you and all your words and thoughts don’t touch me.’’
Of course, he’s speaking those words from his cell. “Imagining Madoff’’ alternates among Madoff’s remarks to an unseen biographer who is visiting him in a North Carolina prison in the summer of 2009; the responses by Madoff’s secretary to questions by unseen members of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and Madoff’s remembered conversations with Galkin, back before the former’s criminality was known.
The treasurer of his synagogue, Galkin wants Madoff to take him on as a personal investment client because the financier has done such a bang-up job managing the synagogue’s trust, or so Galkin thinks. But Madoff keeps parrying the request, and anyway money is not what either of these men is really interested in talking about.
Instead, Madoff and Galkin range animatedly and sometimes heatedly across subjects as varied as baseball, the Talmud, death, poetry, lust, language, faith, life in the concentration camps, God, Jewish identity, and the power that stories possess, for all their contradictions.
Their conversation also touches on the very pertinent questions of trust, ethics, and morality. It’s part exchange of philosophical theories and personal confidences, part fencing match, though Margolin is too subtle a writer to frame their colloquies as a straight-up matter of good vs. evil.
As the learned, religious Galkin, Colodner is saddled with some of the play’s more ponderous speeches, but the actor leavens the character’s gravitas with a spirit of playfulness. Krstansky brings a broken, tremulous quality to the role of the secretary, making it clear that this woman may never recover from her feelings of guilt at what she failed to see.
And the fellow she worked for, the one responsible for shattering so many lives? Part of the achievement of Kissel’s superb performance is the enigmatic quality with which he endows Madoff. For all of his bluster, for all that he tells us of what he thinks and feels, Kissel’s Madoff remains ultimately unknowable, a man hiding in plain sight.