NEW YORK — Solomon Galkin is a Holocaust survivor and a renowned poet and translator; he commands sufficient respect to be chosen as his synagogue’s treasurer. So when he asks a certain Bernard L. Madoff to look after his personal money in “Imagining Madoff,” it is hard not to shudder.
Originally, the investor in the play was Elie Wiesel, the author and activist who lost millions in his personal savings and his foundation’s funds to Madoff’s decades-long Ponzi scheme. But when Wiesel threatened to sue, calling the script “defamatory” and “obscene,” the playwright, Deb Margolin, transformed him into Galkin for the version that had its premiere at Stageworks/Hudson in 2010.
This move not only liberated her from the legal threats but also freed her work from adhering to pesky things like factual accuracy; as its title suggests, the show is not docu-theater. Unfortunately, the change also undermined the stakes by pitting a real villain against a made-up victim — especially one who feels as generic as Galkin.
Even at just over 90 minutes, this production, directed by Jerry Heymann for New Light Theater Project at 59E59 Theaters, feels baggy at times and takes a while to find its footing.
Margolin, a founding member of the feminist company Split Britches and an accomplished writer and performer, especially of solo works (“8 Stops,” “O Yes I Will”), has long been interested in exploring Jewish identity. It is at the center of this piece, which culminates in a scene where Galkin binds the profane Madoff’s arm with tefillin (boxes containing scripture that are strapped to the arm and forehead during prayer).
The conceit is that the Madoff character (Jeremiah Kissel) is recalling from prison a conversation in which Galkin (Gerry Bamman) devoted hours and generous pours of Scotch to persuading Madoff to handle his savings (he was already managing the synagogue’s finances). Both men are tethered to real events, but with enough slack to let Margolin embark on flights of fancy, as when she daringly follows Galkin’s reading from a biblical commentary with Madoff’s memory of a rather telling episode: “I dreamed my penis was a vagina,” he says, “and it was a vagina that had folds. Really, it looked like a wallet.” Freud would be proud.
Throughout, Margolin pits a concentration-camp survivor who somehow remains almost naively hopeful against an amoral, greedy cynic with a fundamentally materialist view, and uses that contrast to explore issues of morality, trust, faith and guilt.
Remorse also factors in, albeit in a way that does not let anybody off the hook. At regular intervals, for instance, the men’s discussion is interrupted by a secretary (Jenny Allen), who pleads ignorance in her court testimony. “I should have known, I had no idea,” she says plaintively of Madoff’s colossal scam. By way of minimizing his misdeeds and, thus, her own, she points out, “It’s not like he murdered people!”
This Madoff is forcefully rendered by Kissel as a brash, vulgar and possibly insecure man, yet he yields little insight into why he did what he did. Fleetingly, he flirts with the idea of telling Galkin the truth, not to save him but to crush his “picture of the world as a place where some men are purely moral.”
He ends up remaining silent.
Through March 23 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.