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Theater Review: “Imagining Madoff” at Theater J

A provocative premise and stellar performances cannot save this misguided theater piece

Imagining Madoff is now playing at Theater J until September 25. Photograph courtesy of C. Stanley Photography

☆☆ out of four

When the stage goes dark and the audience lights come up, we theater critics take our emotional temperature. Exiting Theater J’s production of Imagining Madoff, I felt my blood boiling.  

Theater is supposed to be provocative. A play about convicted felon Bernie Madoff, whose Ponzi scheme bankrupted thousands, is bound to inspire a certain amount of anger and revulsion. But Imagining Madoff, directed by Alexandra Aron, was problematic for me because of its treatment of the subject rather than the subject itself.

Playwright Deb Margolin sets up an imaginary dialogue between Madoff and Solomon Galkin, an Elie Wiesel-like rabbi and Holocaust survivor whose congregation has invested with Madoff. Originally, Wiesel himself was featured in the play, but after he threatened legal action in 2010, his character was revised.

Galkin praises Madoff as one of God’s chosen and urges Madoff to accept him personally as a client. He wraps Judaism around Madoff, literally, binding leather straps attached to prayer scrolls around his hand and on his forehead as the most observant Jews do daily.

In fact, many of Madoff’s victims were Jews. Some, like Elie Wiesel, who lost his life savings and $15.2 million of his charity’s assets, were Holocaust survivors.  

But Madoff was a secular Jew who preyed on his community. Margolin probably intended to invoke the Holocaust and to wrap Madoff in the accoutrements of piety as an ironic commentary on his victimization of his own people. To me it felt forced and offensive.  

Equally forced were the counterpoint vignettes with Madoff’s secretary, played by Jennifer Mendenhall, who is seen testifying endlessly about her boss’s secretive behavior.  

Great actors cannot overcome less-than-great scripts but the two principals do their best here. Rick Foucheux is riveting as the smarmy, unrepentent Madoff. Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum is an effective foil as Rabbi Galkin.   

The hope was that Imagining Madoff would reveal more about the man. Instead I learned more about Madoff from the playbill than from the play itself. His sleaziness was apparent. Associating him with the Jewish faith and the Holocaust were unnecessary affectations that I could have done without.

Imagining Madoff is at Theater J through September 25. Tickets ($25 to $60) available at Theater J’s Web site.

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