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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
IMAGINING MADOFF
at 59E59 Theaters

PYRAMID SCHEME
By MATT WINDMAN

  (L to R): Gerry Bamman and Jeremiah Kissel/ Ph: Jody Christopherson.

I (sort of) met the much admired Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel at a charity event in the fall of 2008 – just a few weeks before it was revealed to the world that the all-powerful Wizard of Wall Street Bernie Madoff was in fact running an enormous and elaborate Ponzi scheme. As it turns out, Wiesel was one of Madoff’s many victims, having invested not just his own personal savings but also his charity’s money with Madoff.

I (sort of) met the performance artist and Yale professor Deb Margolin in 2004 after a one-woman show of hers in the East Village, having been urged to go by a theater professor who knew her personally. After I wrote a short review, Margolin emailed me to thank me and spoke of her belief that the theater community and critics should maintain a strong dialogue. I was really touched by her gesture.

Following the Madoff revelations, Margolin (intrigued by the relationship between Madoff and Wiesel and what their encounters may have been like) wrote Imagining Madoff, which was to premiere in 2010 at Theater J (a regional theater dedicated to works with a direct or indirect connection to Judaism) in Washington, D.C. Wiesel (who received a copy of the script directly from Margolin) did not take kindly to the play. Even though he was intended to serve as a moral contrast to Madoff, Wiesel (perhaps ashamed of and embarrassed by his association with Madoff) claimed the play was defamatory and threatened to bring legal action if it was performed.

Speaking as a lawyer (my day job), I think it is fair to say that there was no legal theory (be it defamation or violation of copyright, trademark, or right of publicity) pursuant to which Wiesel could have realistically won monetary damages or an injunction against Margolin or Theater J. But not surprisingly, Theater J canceled the production. In response, Margolin (who has described the experience as painful in interviews) rewrote the play to replace Wiesel with Solomon Galkin, a sort of Wiesel stand-in who is also a Holocaust survivor and writer. The revised Imagining Madoff premiered in Hudson, NY and then played Theater J (staged by its former artistic director, Ari Roth).

Almost a decade later, Imagining Madoff is finally receiving its New York premiere, in a relatively low-key production (by the New Light Theater Project) and playing a limited run at 59E59. Directed by Jerry Heymann in a no-frills but arresting production in a small playing space, the cast includes Jeremiah Kissell (who works primarily with Boston theater companies) as Madoff, Gerry Gamman (who won an Obie for his performance as Richard Nixon in Nixon’s Nixon) as Galkin, and Jenny Allen (I Got Sick Then I Got Better at New York Theatre Workshop) as Madoff’s unnamed secretary.

Imagining Madoff, which runs 90 minutes without intermission, is a sort of collage, interspersing the secretary speaking before what appears to be an investigative congressional committee about her experiences with Madoff and her total lack of awareness of the criminality going on around her, Madoff (in a jail cell but wearing a suit) speaking to an unseen biographer about his life, Galkin studying portions of holy Jewish text, and past conversations between Madoff and Galkin, during which Galkin treats Madoff with hero worship, they debate Torah and philosophy, and Madoff comes close to revealing his dark secrets. It ends without much finality, with the secretary expressing remorse for her involvement with Madoff and Galkin (having finally learned the truth) expressing disgust at Madoff. The debate-like conversations between Madoff and Galkin prove to be rambling and uneventful, while the secretary’s confessions have a far greater dramatic impact. 

One can’t help but wonder how the original Imagining Madoff compares to the revised version. Even though Wiesel passed away in 2016, Margolin is probably not interested at this point in bringing back the original version. Now a decade since the Madoff scandal, there may still be an opportunity to explore Madoff onstage in a gripping mix of documentary and narrative, in the style of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, Ayad Akhtar’s Junk or Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. Imagining Madoff, on the other hand, is more interested in debating morality than drama.

 


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