We humans pay a price for our free will, and that price is accountability for our actions. According to Jewish thought, we are born with two opposing inclinations, one good (“yetzer ha-tov”) and one evil (“yetzer ha-ra”). Yetzer ha-tov gives us the opportunity to become closer to God. Yetzer ha-ra is not a demonic external force, but rather an undisciplined abuse of natural appetites and passions. These God-given instincts are not intrinsically evil, but harm ensues when we cede them control.
It is through our knowing and willing acts that we indulge our evil or good impulses. Our bible is full of characters who exemplify this dualism. Cain and Esau are no less human than Abel and Jacob; they simply have made different choices. The underlying issue becomes not judging one good and the other evil, but rather understanding what motivated them to act as they did.
In “Imagining Madoff,” Deborah Margolin’s 2010 provocative and compelling play, we meet two such men. Both are Jewish. Both weave biblical parables, Talmudic quotes and Jewish jokes into their conversation. One is Bernie Madoff; the other is Solomon Galkin, a synagogue treasurer, former concentration camp inmate, and poet/Talmudic philosopher. Galkin is based not so loosely on Elie Wiesel. Madoff is unabashedly based on the Ponzi maestro. The play’s spotlight mostly alternates between Madoff’s maximum-security cell, where his consciousness streams aloud to an invisible biographer, and Gaulkin’s plush study, where he and Madoff bond during an all-nighter fueled by scotch. They yak like boyhood chums, alighting on such topics as baseball, sex, lust, humor, friendship, money, God, guilt, Judaism and the Holocaust.
“We acted like old friends,” Madoff tells his biographer. “But that was just us being Jews. We didn’t really know each other.”
Through her insightful and skillfully crafted monologues and dialogues, however, Margolin lets her audiences get to know these two men and discover what makes them tick. Margolin resists prototyping Madoff as an inhuman monster, or Galkin as a paragon of moral authority. She assumes we all know the who, what, when, where and how of each man’s story. Instead, she presents them as multi-dimensional human beings, and trusts her audience to draw their own conclusions about the “why.”
Jeremiah Kissel possesses the role of Madoff with a brilliant sense of electric urgency. His Madoff is complicated and contradictory. One minute he is charming, handsome and smart; the next, he is sleazy, foulmouthed and foul-tempered. He relives crying after he told his first lie as a child, sensing, like a crackhead after his first hit, that he would forever be powerless and addicted to duplicity.
“It was so easy it was painful,” he recounts. “I just told the truth in a completely false way.”
As Galkin, Joel Colodner brings a quiet, weighted, calm confidence to the role. Here is a man who survived evil and doesn’t blame the God who created the men who committed it. If anyone could justify a free pass on amorality, it is Galkin. Instead, he takes solace and refuge in his religion, embracing Torah, ethics, ritual and the goodness of the Jewish people. He, too, is complicated and contradictory.
Ultimately, we see that Madoff and Galkin are two sides of the same Jewish coin. One talks the talk; the other walks the walk. Both have made choices in their lives, but those choices do not alter the fact that they are both Jews. The audience’s job is to notice, not to judge.
When asked why she wrote this play, Margolin answered by email, “The theater is the place where writers and actors ask: Who is this person? Why does he behave as he does?”
“When all is said and done,” she continued, “both Madoff and Galkin are just men. I wanted to ask a dramatic question that explores the seductive beauty and the real and present dangers of absolute faith, either in God, or in men.”
“Recommend” is too tame a word to use in reference to “Imagining Madoff.” I extol it as a sublime work of art, from its brilliant set to its inspired acting to its gifted writing. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.
Pictured above: Joel Colodner (left) starred as Solomon Galkin and Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in “Imagining Madoff.”