Being Bernie Madoff, The 21st Century Villain
People are still trying to get their heads around what drove Bernard Madoff to swindle friends and clients with his $65 billion Ponzi scheme.
Now, “Imagining Madoff,” a three-person play at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, is exploring the mindset of this notorious criminal. Actor Jeremiah Kissel is cast as the villainous title character, and he’s loving it.
When asked to deliver a few lines from “Imagining Madoff,” Kissel takes a deep breath, stares into my eyes and becomes evil incarnate.
“Listen, can you help me?” he implores. “I was trying to remember the outcome. The punch line. The joke. How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
The Madoff character goes on to muse about “the screwers.” It’s one of many chilling monologues that convinced Kissel to take on this dastardly role.
“I think what appeals to one about villains like this is that there’s not a lot of editing,” he explains. “They give in to these desirous impulses and that selfishness. We all have that within us.”
Kissel has been thinking deeply about what goes on in his character’s scheming mind. The actor admits he still has trouble understanding the real Madoff’s motivations.
“We hear about Ponzi schemes every day. You can turn on CNBC and watch ‘American Greed’ and see a program about Ponzi schemes that are smaller — hundreds and thousands of people who did schemes like this,” Kissel says. “They all did it for the money. He didn’t. He already had money. He needed more?”
When “Imaging Madoff” premiered in Washington, D.C. two years ago, one reviewer called it a poetic “autopsy.” Onstage, the Madoff character addresses an unseen biographer in an attempt to create his own personal narrative.
In a particularly vicious stream of words, he explains that he didn’t do it for the money, but instead because of the “movement” money creates. Money is fast, Madoff says — like a spawning salmon — and from a very young age, he dreamt of hunting it.
“Just reach in my hand and grab one, stop him in midstream, stop him! He’s flapping, it takes him time to realize it’s over — oh it’s all over — he’s never going to make it,” Kissel delivers the lines with a snickering laugh. “I’ve got him, he’s flapping and flapping, he can’t breathe anymore. And now he’s on my plate. He’s dead, dead — and oh he’s delicious — and he’s dead. And I’m wiping my mouth.”
Reading it on the page doesn’t do this diatribe justice. Kissel pants between his lines and is clearly relishing his role as one of our century’s most notorious white collar criminals.
“Americans have always loved their villains,” says John Spooner, a wealth manager and writer in Boston. He knows the good, the bad and the ugly in the financial world intimately and says the real life Madoff saga is practically made for the stage because of its “high drama.”
“It’s got everything. The American character. Fear and greed,” says Spooner.
Bernie Madoff is a criminal who perpetrated heinous crimes on victims who are still struggling to recover — many of them live here in Boston. Kissel says his heart goes out to them, and he emphasizes that this play is fiction.
“It’s not a documentary, and this isn’t an episode of ‘Frontline,’” Kissel explains. “I’m not playing THE Bernie Madoff — I’m playing Bernie Madoff as written by Deb Margolin in this play which is called, ‘Imagining Madoff.’”
Reached by phone in New Jersey, Margolin says, “Theatre is great for asking the question: who is this man, who is this woman? Who are these people?”
Margolin was — and still is — wracked with questions about the real Madoff since he was busted for swindling a record-breaking $65 billion from his clients for decades.
“You know, I thought to myself, if I were living a lie for 35 years, if every time someone told me they loved me I knew they had no idea who they were talking to, what kind of dissociated, painful inner life, what kind of torque of the spirit would I have to be enduring?”
Margolin says being Jewish herself made it even more confusing, disturbing and personal. The levels of blind complicity on the part of Wall Street and Madoff’s accomplices made her head spin. It evoked another unfathomable crime: the Holocaust.
So the playwright created a back story for Madoff, which she says was a dramatist’s dream come true. This reimagined, reality-based character had all the makings for a complex, tragic, almost mythic bad guy. In one scene, her Madoff recalls telling his mother a lie for the first time.
“She believed me and I went into my bedroom — which I shared with my brother — and cried for two days. Nothing could stop me from crying. I didn’t even know why I was crying. I never told her it was a lie. I took the cookie she gave me and hid it, it stood for the lie I told, I punished myself by putting away the cookie. I found that cookie when we were moving, it was crumbs with bugs in it. So easy. So easy. It’s painful to be able to lie as easily as I’m able to lie, I can lie about anything, it’s like writing a story or singing a song, I just tell the truth in a completely false way. Like changing the color of something that’s already there. It makes me sad, to be able to lie so easily.”
In the play, Madoff isn’t alone onstage. There’s his secretary and also a person Margolin describes as a “moral avatar.” In her first draft, this spiritual Jewish man was based on Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who in reality was also one of Madoff’s victims. His life savings were decimated and his charity, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, lost an estimated $15 million. But after reading Margolin’s script, Wiesel threatened legal action. In the end, she altered parts of the character, but the writer says it didn’t change the point of the play.
“These were not biographical sketches of people,” Margolin explaines. “This play was intended as a moral investigation.”
Actor Jeremiah Kissel talked at length about how the play draws connections and demands responsibility for one’s actions, far more than he expected at first. But he also feels like the damage Madoff did is still incredibly raw – maybe too raw for people to stomach as a theatrical event.
“If you lost your child’s college education, if you lost your entire retirement. You know, if you were a cop and you worked for 30 years and, you know, your last $300,000 that you and your wife were going to live on was just gone — I can’t imagine wanting to hear about any fascinating, wonderful, glorious piece of art that had this guy’s name attached to it. I can’t imagine.”
But Kissel also says a good work of art doesn’t answer questions, it raises them. And for him, “Imagining Madoff” does that in spades.
“Imagining Madoff” is onstage at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through January 26.