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St. Louis by Richard Green

Imagining Madoff
The New Jewish Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Safe House


Jerry Vogel and Bobby Miller
There's something insanely beautiful about this production.

Nobody ever twists your arm to make you believe the single greatest crook in Wall Street history might be some kind of unrecognized heroic figure. But, for a while there, as bad as Bernard Madoff is, you can't help nodding in sympathy with him, and even seeing things his way, a little.

In that sense this production of Becoming Madoff is truly remarkable, transformative theater. We hear about the ruination he caused, for sure, but the play's a great "imagination" of why he did it, and where it led him.

Bobby Miller turns in another great performance, this time as the mega-swindler. And just as he accrues a sort of grudging sympathy from the audience, the play's actual hero becomes strangely repellent: like a 'noodge' whose charm has gradually worn off. Solomon Galkin—apparently a fictionalized version of Madoff investor (and famed Nazi hunter) Elie Wiesel—makes for a very unexpected villain. He's played by the equally terrific Jerry Vogel.

Maybe "hero" and "villain" are too strong of terms for a fictionalized character study like this, where everything is done with mesmerizing little brushstrokes, under the direction of Lee Anne Matthews. Deb Margolin wrote the 95-minute play (which premiered in 2010) and in this staging, it all amounts to war of nerves, as Madoff's remorseless fatalism falls prey to boundless, joyful poetics, and gradually his conscience wakes up. But it's far too late.

There's no question that Mr. Madoff ruined his worshipful investors, creating false NASDAQ trading records while establishing the world's greatest Ponzi scheme. Including "paper losses," he may have defrauded investors of up to 65 billion dollars. The man himself is currently serving a 150-year sentence in a medium security prison near Butner, North Carolina.

And, though both his sons were cleared of wrongdoing, their family paid a heavy price: one son died of lymphoma, and the other hanged himself, in the years following the investigation. Their youthful tragedies may help us understand the importance of one of the play's bigger theological discussions.

Thanks to the imaginary dialogs here, the title character develops a stomach-churning desire to confess. But every time he tries—with increasing anguish—Galkin grabs control of their on-stage chats, and delightedly runs off on another tangent: usually religious or poetic in nature. And as his soul revives, Madoff (here, at least) finds himself locked up in a newfound sense of guilt.

It's the steady flow of Wiesel's nearly cloying interruptions that finally provokes that strange, contrarian admiration for Madoff, and his own hapless existentialism. As sleek and grim and unpretentious as that world-view is.

But, if you can accommodate the notion that an exuberantly poetic mind like Wiesel's could ever bring itself to purposely torture a man of far less lyrical disposition, this would have to be Jerry Vogel's most subtly subversive, antagonistic performance to date—surpassing his own work as the apologetic, acquisitive, wealthy doctor in The Price; and his Shylock, too, both for the same theatre. Now, as Wiesel, he becomes the world's most adorable (and unstoppable) grand inquisitor.

Beautiful Julie Layton provides some real-life grounding, as a secretary giving testimony in a federal hearing throughout the action. Her exceedingly naturalistic courtroom scenes explain so much of the mystique of Madoff the man (and the tragedy he inflicted on others), that the avuncular, private scenes between Miller and Vogel seem to occupy a higher plane. They become almost olympian by contrast.

Through February 8, 2015, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Campus Drive. The center is located just west of Lindbergh Blvd., along Schuetz Rd., between Page Ave. and Olive Street Road. For more information visit www.newjewishtheatre.org.

Cast
Bernie Madoff: Bobby Miller*
Solomon Galkin: Jerry Vogel*
Secretary: Julie Layton

Production Staff
Director: Lee Anne Matthews
Stage Manager: Emily Clinger*
Scenic Design and Artist: Kyra Bishop
Lighting Design: Kimberly Klearman
Costume Design: Michele Friedman Siler
Properties Design: Jenny Smith
Sound Design: Michael B. Perkins
Master Electrician: Tanner Douglas
Assistant Stage Manager: Becky Fortner
Board Operator: Kim Avants

* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association


Photo: Eric Woolsey


-- Richard T. Green

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