When the Bernard Madoff scandal broke in 2008, some Jews feared a rise in anti-Semitism, predicting that age-old stereotypes of the greedy Hebrew would be awakened and again perpetuated. Now, nearly two years later, despite a minor increase in typically anonymous, bigoted comments on websites and blogs, it remains mostly a Jewish obsession: How could he have done it to his own tribe?
Deborah Margolin takes this question further in her provocative and compelling new play, “Imagining Madoff,” which ran from July 21 to August 7 at StageWorks/Hudson in upstate New York. In her carefully crafted script, Margolin concocts an encounter between Madoff and an Elie Wiesel-like client, a Holocaust survivor and acclaimed poet whose synagogue is the latest unwitting victim of the investor’s Ponzi scheme. It is, in Margolin’s eyes, the meeting of two abiding and opposing Jewish prototypes: the scholar and the street tough; philanthropist and ganef; those who respond to hardship by learning and giving, and those who bitterly take.
Madoff (Mark Margolis) is first seen in his jail cell, a brash and vengeful veteran of poverty and struggle who has become in his investment business a savvy, secret, almost silent thief who knows enough not to call attention to himself, to be just “another envelope at the bar mitzvah.” Reluctantly revealing himself to an unseen book writer (an overly familiar device that is one of the play’s few missteps), he tells of his evolving friendship with one of his most elegant and esteemed clients, poet Solomon Galkin (Howard Green).
In meticulously written and sometimes eye-opening scenes, the Madoff-Galkin alliance slowly becomes the attempted spiritual education (or even seduction) of one man by the other. Madoff, who professes to find religion “boring” and “depressing,” is drawn in by the devout but undogmatic Galkin, a former concentration camp inmate who finds comfort in the open-ended and tough-minded questions of the Talmud. Speaking dialogue filled with startling and ambiguous imagery — often and daringly related to sex and gender — Madoff eventually allows himself to be taught to tie tefillin. He is physically aroused and repelled by the experience, which he compares to sexual bondage, and which ends with straps wrapped tenderly and excruciatingly around the middle finger he has so often shown to the world.
Madoff wishes to avoid a connection and confession to this good man, who, innocently believing him to be a “miracle worker” with money, yearns for him to handle his personal finances; Madoff’s refusal to do so becomes perhaps his only unselfish act. Ultimately, he starts to see himself as a false and irresponsible prophet to his clients, like the God who told Abraham to kill Isaac in the Bible story that Galkin makes him ponder. Overwhelmed by guilt, Madoff is too ashamed to be saved by the poet, his better, shadow self.
Studded with dreams, parables, talmudic quotations and dirty jokes that reverberate with meaning, Margolin’s mature and intriguing script is a far cry from the shallow re-creations of cable docudramas drawn from public records and overly concerned with real events. At StageWorks, it is well served by Laura Margolis’s effective and unobtrusive direction, which highlights the fine work of Mark Margolis and Green, the first a thoughtful and tormented thug, the second an erudite yet unpretentious man of letters. John Pollard’s set provides spare and sleek evocations of Madoff’s cell, Galkin’s office (filled with the sturdy wood that Madoff sees as representative of maleness), and the headquarters of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
It is only in this last location that the play mildly falters, featuring the sworn testimony of Madoff’s unnamed secretary. Whether she is there to provide exposition or to add the ego to Madoff’s id and Galkin’s superego, her scenes are comparatively under-realized. They are beautifully played by Robin Leslie Brown, and feature a final image of the secretary standing with Galkin at the far upstage end of StageWorks’ deep space — as if receding, unperturbed, into the past or the unconscious — providing the production’s most effective visual. But the episodes aren’t adequately integrated with the rest of the play, which so impressively attempts to honor or merely understand the aspects of Galkin and Madoff in the mythic Jewish character.
Interestingly, the man who inspired Galkin — a character clearly admired by the author — objected to the portrayal, which used his real name in the original script. As reported in The New York Times and elsewhere, Elie Wiesel called the portrait “obscene” and “defamatory,” and threatened to sue, causing Margolin to change her play and scuttle its first production at Washington, D.C.’s Theater J.
Whatever this incident reveals about the delicate egos of purported paragons or the timidity of modern playwrights and their theaters, the result was fortuitous; maybe Margolin should have changed Madoff’s name, as well. Since it’s a play about duality and betrayal, using characters renamed and unbeholden to their actual, demanding (and perhaps self-deluded) inspirations might have made the already eloquent “Imagining Madoff” an even greater triumph of the imagination.
Laurence Klavan is a playwright and novelist living in New York City. His graphic novels, “City of Spies” and “Brain Camp,” both co-written by Susan Kim, are being published this year.