Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Imagining Madoff Conjectures on
Originally, Deb Margolin wrote her play Imagining Madoff about the relationship between massive Wall Street Ponzi scheme swindler Bernard Madoff and Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and author who lost millions of dollars of his personal wealth as well as the $15 million of assets in his foundation by investing with Madoff. When Wiesel read Margolin's play after it was scheduled for production by Theatre J (Washington, D.C.), he found it to be defamatory and "obscene" and threatened to sue if the play were to be produced. Theatre J requested that Margolin revise the play by replacing Wiesel with a fictional character, and when she declined to do so, the production was cancelled.
However, after Margolin faced the reality that she could not afford to be involved in such a lawsuit, she decided to proceed as Theatre J had suggested. Subsequently, the play has been produced at Stageworks/Hudson (Hudson, NY) and Theatre J. As a result of the contretemps and the coverage which it received, Imagining Madoff has arrived at New Jersey's Garage Theatre far better known than other recent plays with a similar production history.
The Wiesel-free revised version is now about Madoff and Solomon Galkin, a fictional Holocaust survivor who is a poet, translator and treasurer of his synagogue. However, much of the original dialogue ascribed to Wiesel survives unchanged.
Aside from the public record as to Madoff's position in the financial and investment community, and the fiduciary crimes that he committed, playwright Deb Margolin has not based her "imaginings" about any known specific details of his life (the absence of which is a major disappointment). In place of analyzing and synthesizing the details of Madoff's childhood, family life, education, values, significant influences, meaningful relationships, and possible traumas in order to create a plausible, believable, understandable Bernard Madoff, Margolin has chosen to manufacture events in a fictional life history which render Madoff's outrageous crimes understandable to her. In doing so, Margolin finds a basis for sympathy, or, at the least, pity for that man.
I surely oversimplify, but it seems to me that Margolin offers two basic explanations for Madoff's behavior. The most Freudian is that his mother psychologically suppressed his libido, destroying his erections in the process, and leaving him with the need to dominate and destroy others in order to prove his manhood. The less Freudian explanation also involves his mother. It is his tremendous disappointment in her and disrespect for her when he discovered how easily he could fool and manipulate here with his lies. Somehow, this led to contempt for the gullibility of all mankind and a compulsion to expose and punish them for it. In any event, this is what I extrapolated from Imagining Madoff. Frankly, it struck me as unconvincing psycho-babble. In any event, there is not enough anchorage in the real life of Madoff to satisfy our curiosity about him.
However, there is another, more than equally major, and far more interesting parallel track on which Imagining Madoff runs, and that is the philosophical debate between Wiesel and Madoff on the nature and value of life and man. These discussions are based on the Torah (Jewish scripture) and Midrash (1st century exploration and interpretations of the Torah).
Deb Margolin is clearly well versed and deeply interested in these matters, and the discussion is spirited, intelligent, and offers much food for thought. Actually, both the uplifting pro-faith arguments and the alienated anti-humanist viewpoints are cogent and intellectually enticing.
A third character on stage is identified as Madoff's Secretary. She stands guard to the portals of Madoff's office and her role is that of a lay observer. She is depicted giving testimony in court.
Stage right is a detention facility. Bernard Madoff is in his orange jump suit prison outfit. He will cross over repeatedly to the center stage study of Solomon Galkin for depictions of visits and conversations with Galkin. Madoff often speaks directly to the audience in order to provide necessary information to us. This device is appropriate given that it would not be possible for a con artist to speak truth to one of his victims. Stage left is the witness box for the testifying Madoff secretary.
Director Frank Licato and his Bernard Madoff have made some questionable decisions regarding their interpretation of Madoff. Madoff remains in his prison jump suit throughout the play. In keeping with his costume, Bias plays Madoff throughout with the glazed, detached demeanor that we see in Madoff's post arrest photos. Since he is narrating his meetings with Galkin looking back, there is logic to this interpretation. However, it saps some life from the play. The play would have more theatrical life if Bias were to step from the jump suit for most of the play, and, both in performance and dress, show us the sharp, smart and persuasive Madoff who scammed the community leadership of his own faith. Not that Margolin's play provides any easy decisions in the matter.
Thom Molyneaux brings a lovely, persuasive presence to Solomon Galkin. There is sweetness, humanity and an on target middle Europe Yiddish accent to his English.
Mikaela Kafka brings an audience pleasing, down to earth brio to the role of Madoff's Secretary
At all performances of Garage Theatre's Imagining Madoff author Deb Margolin, a New Jersey native, will participate in post-performance audience feedback discussions. On opening night, Ms. Margolin was honest and feisty in discussing her problems with Elie Wiesel, more persuasive in purveying her interpretation of Bernard Madoff than in her script, and engaged in a feisty, but polite give and take on the play and its ideas. An all too rare, substantive and entertaining post performance discussion thanks to the generous participation of its author, Deb Margolin.
Imagining Madoff continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees: Sunday 3 pm) through November 11, 2012, at the Garage Theatre Group, Becton Theatre, on the campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1000 River Road, Teaneck, New Jersey 07670. Box Office: 201-569-7710; online: www.GarageTheatre.org.
Imagining Madoff by Deb Margolin; directed by Michael Bias