TAMPA — If you know up front that one of Imagining Madoff's characters was modeled on Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and if you know Wiesel wasn't happy about it, you can't help but try to figure out why.
Maybe it was the sexual components of the script, which playwright Deborah Margolin said she believes are an undercurrent in any crime. Or maybe the reality that Wiesel had all his money stolen in Madoff's Ponzi scheme was just too painful to revisit.
But as a piece of art, none of it ultimately matters. Imagining Madoff, making its regional premiere at Tampa Repertory Theatre, is just that — an imaginary look at conversations between Bernie Madoff and an 80-year-old philosopher named Solomon Galkin. Margolin changed Wiesel to Galkin after the Nobel Peace Prize winner made his objections clear.
The very concept is rich with dramatic tension: The ultimate saint and the ultimate sinner in a room together, one unaware he is being robbed by the other. It could feel claustrophobic, yet director Steve Mountan avoids that with his artful staging in the round.
The play begins on Madoff's secretary, who does not have a name. That's a reflection of how Madoff sees women, something to be seen and not heard. She's testifying before a grand jury about Madoff's corrupt dealings.
Galkin is in his study, reading religious texts. And Madoff is in his prison cell, talking to an invisible biographer.
"How many Jews does it take to screw in a light bulb?" he wonders aloud. He can't remember the punchline, but the concept of screwing people is important to him.
The characters' shared Jewish heritage but differing levels of faith factor prominently into the story, and the dialogue requires attention. They repeat the same things several times in different ways, a means to make different points hit home.
Jim Wicker plays Madoff with a relaxed braggadocio tempered by a furrowed brow that betrays his confidence. His voice is low and smooth like a radio announcer, someone you can trust. C. David Frankel, Tampa Rep's artistic director who previously read the role of Galkin at a conference, gives Galkin a hunchbacked sweetness, a foil to Madoff's rough edges.
When the chatter between the men starts to feel tedious, which it does in places, the secretary played by Joanna Sycz is a welcome palate cleanser. She is the Greek chorus, wrestling with the atrocities her boss has wrought, wrestling with any role she had in the crimes.
The biggest gift of Imagining Madoff is Margolin's lyrical dialogue, which feels poetic. A Madoff monologue about the thrill of catching salmon with his bare hands could almost be a song.
Imagining Madoff's mission is to challenge the notion of absolute faith in saviors. It forces us to examine our own complicity in crimes around us, big or small. And it asks, can even the most evil person have a chance at redemption?
That's something worth trying to figure out.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.