Rick Foucheux's portrayal of Bernie Madoff, the Ponzi-schemeing crook thrown into the spotlight of Theater J's production, is a lot of things. But it isn't sorry. "Fuck you!" he screams in a particularly heated moment in the play. "Fuck you all who wanted to punish me!" From the mind of playwright Deb Margolin, the 90-minute drama is neither an investigation of Madoff's billion-dollar fraud or his motivations for doing it. Instead, it narrows onto a fictionalized conversation between Madoff and Soloman Galkin (Mike Nussbaum), a Holocaust-surviving rabbi who praises the investor as a mensch before he loses everything. (Galkin's character bears more than a passing ethical resemblance to Elie Wiesel, whose threatened lawsuit forced Margolin to remove his name from the play and delayed it from opening at Theater J last year.)
Casting Madoff a man of religion against seems like a surefire way to draw out his demons, pitting light against dark, cynicism against morality. And when Imagining Madoff reaches its climax -- as the two men dig into each other while debating the story of Abraham -- the strategy illuminates the monstrous shadows in his life. Madoff, in a fit of rage, comes close to breaking Galkin's faith in trust by telling him his truth. The moment is an emotionally deafening one; when Madoff realizes what he was about to do, his aghast silence somehow manages to be both humanizing and demonic.
Off-stage, a secretary (Jennifer Mendenhall) paints in the after effects of Madoff's crime during a testimony at an SEC hearing. Mendenhall does wonders with the character, who only appears in snippets yet manages to seem more wholly human and normal than either man standing on stage. (A stage that, it must be added, looks fantastic.) She's a forgotten victim -- she didn't lose millions, but she struggles to accept her role in stealing it. Of course, a play about Bernie Madoff must live and die by its depiction of Bernie Madoff. In doing so, Margolin plunges into depths of his life not considered, using means unexpected. Imagining Madoff is not a complete portrait of the man, nor a how-to account of his theft. But when it's over, an incomprehensible man fits better into focus. To Sept. 25. The Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater, Washington, D.C.'s Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets are $30 to $55. Call 202-518-9400 or visit washingtondcjcc.org.
Reviewed by Chris Heller