Bernie Madoff never met Ivar Kreuger, the wealthy Swedish financier, industrialist, and con man upon whom Terence Rattigan’s slender melodrama, Man and Boy, is based. Kreuger committed suicide in 1932 when his financial empire collapsed, taking many companies, banks, and investors down with him. But the two men might well have acknowledged each other as kindred spirits: Soulless, high-stakes gamblers, and amoral loners, Madoff and Kreuger loved the game. Both were utterly indifferent to the pain they caused the people who were condemned to love or need them. And both of their stories ended badly.
Madoff, of course, has not ended his life. But he is destined to spend what remains of it in jail, an appropriate way-station on the road to the hell he so richly deserves. The published accounts of his apparent indifference to the emotional pain and financial suffering he caused trusting friends, mostly Jewish investors, and innocent bystanders in his quest for—what?—resonate throughout the words and deeds that Rattigan wrote for his play’s anti-hero, Gregor Antonescu, a Depression-era Romanian-born crook and con man, brilliantly interpreted in a new Broadway production by Frank Langella.
It’s easy to see why the Roundabout Theatre Company thought the moment had come for a revival of this creaky drama, originally performed in 1963, a decade or two after Rattigan’s best work had been written. The company’s bet on this lesser play is vindicated thanks mainly to the astonishing Langella, whose riveting, flawless performance almost gives depth and definition to a character who lacks both. Why anyone at all should love such a driven, egomaniacal monster is a mystery that Rattigan does not even attempt to resolve (just as recent books and the 60 Minutes interviews of Madoff’s wife and surviving son do little to explain how such an evil man could successfully impress others as a loving father and a respected member of his community). But Langella’s silky villainy makes him irresistibly charismatic to the audience and those destined to be manipulated and betrayed by him—namely, almost everyone in the play.
Nobody but nobody plays bad as well as Langella. I’ve been devoted to him ever since he seduced Kate Nelligan (Lucy Seward) in John Badham’s 1979 film version of Dracula. His sexy, sultry vampire was magnetic, making the prospect of feasting on humans and an eternity of night-life clubbing almost alluring. Then came his portrayal of the disgraced president in Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon, another theatrical villain to whom he gave not just jowls but complexity and a sort of grandeur. But Langella has a tougher challenge in Antonescu, another variety of vampire who preys on the financial blood of the living. Rattigan has written him as a stick figure—a “Romanian-born radio and oil king” whose motto for financial survival is “confidence and liquidity.” Unable to love—it’s a “commodity I can’t afford,” Antonescu says—he is hard to empathize with, or even to hate. But Langella performs the impossible: He makes an audience unable to stop watching him.
The play revolves around Gregor’s desperate effort to save his financial empire by using his illegitimate son to help persuade a potential merger target, American industrialist Mark Herries (expertly played by Zach Grenier), not to abandon the planned deal upon which his solvency depends. Herries, like the late author, has an inconvenient secret: He is gay, or “queer,” an old-fashioned word uttered in another context by Gregor’s son’s girlfriend, Carol Penn (the able Virginia Kull, who struggles mightily with a poorly drawn character). So, Gregor’s plan is to use his son, who calls himself Basil Anthony, by introducing him to Herries not as his offspring, but as sexual bait. In the course of this play-within-a-play, Gregor suggests to Herries that he, too, is similarly inclined and that Basil just might be available to Herries if the price is right—that is, if the merger goes through.
Gregor, however, has a problem: He hasn’t seen Basil since a quarrel five years earlier that seems to have involved a revolver, a half-hearted effort by Basil to shoot his ruthless father, and a subsequent escape to New York to tend bar, play music, and flirt with “goddamn Bolshie” politics.
After dropping in virtually unannounced on Basil in his meticulously depicted, grungy Greenwich Village basement flat and begging for his help, Gregor fails to clue him in on his precise intended role in this financial rescue scheme. Basil (Adam Driver) is furious and crushed when he finally understands how his father has used him—obviously not for the first time. Throughout the play, Basil, as weak as his father is ruthless, struggles with his instinctive devotion to a man he knows is evil and whom in a particularly compelling moment of the play he denounces as “nothing.”
By the play’s end, Gregor is very much alone. His elegantly transactional former stripper of a wife (Francesca Faridany), grandly attired and perfectly coiffed, a “countess” whose title has also been bought and paid for, abandons him to his fate. So too does his efficient, self-serving factotum, an omnipresent right-hand man and enabler named Sven Johnson (played by Michael Siberry, who in his own smaller role is as compelling, perplexing, and chilling a character as his boss).
Crisply directed by the Tricycle Theatre’s Maria Aitken, Man and Boy may not be a great play. But thanks to the extraordinary Langella and a strong supporting cast, it is superb theater. After they’ve stopped watching re-runs of Ruth Madoff’s treakly performance on 60 Minutes, the Madoff family should go see it.
Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.
Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.