New Rep’s ‘Madoff’ examines who more than why

Joel Colodner as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in IMAGINING MADOFF by Deborah Margolin Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

Joel Colodner as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in IMAGINING MADOFF by Deborah Margolin
Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

WATERTOWN — There are villains, and there are villains. Bernard Madoff became an almost imcomprehensible $20 billion villain when his elaborate Ponzi scheme defrauded individuals and institutions alike for decades.

But was Madoff alone to blame? When he continually boasted of almost impossible to believe returns, did those investing with Madoff suspect something? Did they want to know? And what role did institutions such as JP Morgan play in enabling Madoff?

An old saw comes to mind: “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

Or can you? Because it seems many of those who were his victims were beyond reproach.

We know what Madoff did, but never did quite find out why. Those who are looking for the definitive reason for why won’t find it in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff,” a fictional account of Madoff and his encounter with one of his victims.

Perhaps, Margolin theorizes, Madoff did it because he could do it, and he found out early in life he was quite good at lying.

Margolin is more concerned here with the who instead of the why. The action is set in August 2009, three weeks after Madoff entered the Butner Federal Correction complex in North Carolina, and Madoff (Jeremiah Kissel) looks relaxed as he encounters an unseen biographer.

“The lunches are actually pretty good,” he confides.

His Madoff is smiling, easy, a charmer. It is easy to imagine, once word gets around, people lining up to give him money. When he is not oozing charm, Madoff is arrogant, profane, and dismissive.

Eventually Madoff move backwards in time to his recollections of his meetings with one of his victims, and “Madoff” becomes a morality play that closely examines the psyche of the man.

In the hands of a strong director such as Elaine Vaan Hogue and a cast that includes three of my favorite local actors — Kissel, Joel Colodner and Adrianne Krstansky ( yes, we critics have our biases just like you do ) — it is an engrossing, powerful 90 minutes of theater.

Krstansky is excellent as an guilt-wracked, unnamed secretary of Madoff’s who is called before the Securities and Exchange Commission examining his crimes.

Krstansky apologizes profusely and exudes plausible deniability. “I had no idea. I should have known.”

She explores rationalizations meant to absolve herself as much as her boss. He never actually killed anyone, she notes. No — just their hopes, dreams, sense of security, etc.

The character of poet Solomon Galkin (Colodner) is a stand-in for Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor turned activist. Margolin had intended Wiesel, who was among Madoff’s victims, to be part of the play but he threatened legal action.

The character of Galkin is also a Holocaust survivor and the treasurer of a synagogue investing with Madoff; he is also eager to have Madoff invest his own money, which Madoff is reluctant to do, possibly in a moment of conscience or remorse that would have had him steal the money of a man who had seen the horrors that Galkin had, heaping one more indignity on him.

They meet to talk ostensibly about money but quickly the talk turns to the values of Judaism, trust, friendship. Colodner’s part is the most difficult one, but Colodner infuses him with warmth and heart.

Playwright Margolin is Jewish and possibly experienced a catharsis of sorts in closely examining the man who wreaked so much havoc on his victims, many of whom were Jewish.

She even imagines a scenario as the Scotch flowed between Madoff and his victim, and a moment of truth when Madoff might have unveiled himself for what he really was.

As we know, it never happened. He lived a lie for 35 years and ruined the lives of many people, as well as taking down his whole family with him.

Scenic designer Jon Savage’s stunning set cascade of books flowing up a wall and overhead on the set, with a set of jail bars on one end. Madoff moves between the two, finally settling on one end, as we also well know.

At the end of “Imagining Madoff,” you probably still won’t know why, but you may begin to understand the who.

The New Repertory Theatre production of Deborah Margolin’s “Imagining Madoff.” Directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue. At the Black Box Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through Jan. 26.