Imagining Madoff Through Jan. 25 AT TAR 120, USF Theatre Building, 4202 E. Fowler Ave.,Tampa, 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. $20, $15 students/seniors/military, tamparep.org. (Rating: 2 out of 5 stars)
Life Upon The Wicked Stage Through Feb. 4 at Gypsy Stage Repertory’s various spaces in St. Petersburg, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and Sarasota, 813-922-8778, $10-$20, gypsystage.com. (Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars)
Tampa Rep’s Imagining Madoff is a bore. It didn’t have to be: With one of the most notorious financial criminals in recent history as its main focus, and with a brilliant and erudite Talmudic scholar as his foil, Deborah Margolin’s play should be illuminating and revelatory. But it’s not. Margolin never tells us very much about what motivates Bernard Madoff to fleece so many people, and Solomon Galkin’s discussions of Torah and Talmud occur with a randomness that has you wondering about their relevance.
In fact, “random” is the key concept here. The two men discuss baseball and women and Abraham and Isaac so arbitrarily, you eventually realize that this is a game without a net, without bounds, without rules. Does Galkin wrap Madoff in the phylacteries donned each morning by traditional Jews? Yes he does — though I can’t begin to figure out why, or how it relates to Madoff’s crimes. Does Galkin philosophize about a Holocaust photograph that hurt him deeply, that reminded him of the horror of the war years? Yes, but I can’t guess why the memory belongs in this particular play. Most frustrating of all is the unplumbed mystery of the title character — the play could more honestly be titled Failing to Imagine Madoff. And the third character in the piece, Madoff’s secretary, apparently testifying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, provides us only hints about her boss when we’re looking for key facts. Truly an exasperating experience.
The acting is mixed. Best of all is Joanna Sycz, who with great intensity gives that secretary a sharply defined identity as an easily frightened woman who’s worried for herself even as she insists that she never realized in what sort of schemes her boss was involved. As Madoff, Jim Wicker is seldom believable — he doesn’t seem a bit Jewish, and his efforts at some sort of New York accent are particularly unsuccessful.
C. David Frankel is somewhat better as Solomon Galkin (originally Elie Wiesel until Wiesel threatened to sue) but eventually his whiny (very un-Wiesel-like) saintliness cloys and one pines for added dimensions. Alex Amyot’s set is a real winner though — it brings us a prison cell, an SEC hearing room, and Galkin’s study as different segments of a square space surrounded by the audience. Steve Mountan’s direction is intelligent, and Connie LaMarca-Frankel’s costumes, like Lynne Locher’s evocative sound design, could hardly be better.
Finally, it’s a pleasure to see a relatively sizable audience at a Tampa Rep show; maybe the moral of this story is, leave HCC-Ybor behind and produce more often at USF.
But be careful what you produce: Madoff, for all the intelligence of its individual parts, never comes together to mean anything. In a different play, Bernard Madoff might belong with Iago and other great figures of theatrical vice.
Here he’s only a mask, barely penetrated, never removed. You’ll learn more from last year’s newspapers.
Out of Focus. The acting in Jo Morello and Jack Gilhooley’s Life Upon The Wicked Stage is so often amateurish, it’s hard to figure out where the problem is the script and where it’s just bad performances. Certainly this series of one-acts, produced by Gypsy Stage Repertory, is not up to the married playwrights’ usual standards (full disclosure: I’ve known them both as friends and colleagues for several years). Gilhooley has produced many fine plays in New York and elsewhere, and Morello’s E.G.O.(about Eugene O’Neill and his wives) is notably winning. But the six one-acts that make up Wicked Stage are just moderately interesting, even as they skewer battling dramatists, randy agents, uninformed actors, and predatory directors. Perhaps the two best are “The Hetero Chorus Boy,” about a straight guy who pretends to be gay so he’ll keep his job, and “Obsolete,” which posits the inevitable idea of a play with no actors. But of the evening’s nine performers, only Preston Copeland, Beth Adele Long, Jonathan R. Thornsberry, and Skyla Dawn Luckey show glimmers of professionalism, and the directing, by Lil Barcaski and Mary Locarni, can’t compensate for what the players lack. I’m delighted that Gypsy Stage (a company that trains performers) is choosing to produce local (okay, Sarasota) playwrights, but homegrown talent won’t win many fans when the acting is at this level. Indeed, let’s see work from the west coast of Florida; but let’s see it done well.