Deb Margolin’s Imagining Madoff

Henry Bial

What might one of the world's most respected Jews have to say to one of its most despised? That is just one of the questions explored by Deb Margolin's new play Imagining Madoff, which premiered last summer at Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, New York, following a wave of controversy that brought the work to national attention. Inspired by the Bernard Madoff financial scandal, and particularly by the revelation that Elie Wiesel was one of the victims of Madoff's ponzi scheme, Margolin crafted a play built around a fictional, private conversation between the two men.

Before Imagining Madoff reached the stage, however, Wiesel threatened legal action against its production, feeling that the play was "defamatory" and "obscene." Wiesel's reaction prompted Washington DC's Theater J, which had been scheduled to premier the play as the opening production of its 2010–2011 season, to ask Margolin for a rewrite that would replace Wiesel with another, fictional character. While Margolin readily agreed to revise the play, Theater J took the additional (and, to the playwright, inappropriate) step of offering to submit the revised script to the Wiesel Foundation to assure that it contained nothing actionable. Feeling that this offer amounted to giving Wiesel the power to censor her creative expression, Margolin asked her agent to withdraw the play from Theater J. As she commented on the culture blog Parabasis, "I was not averse to editing the play, to removing references to Wiesel's fictionalized character; I could not, however, bring myself to submit a play for approval to a man who has for years stood for the struggle for human rights and freedoms, including the freedom of speech."

Though a revised version, in which the Wiesel character was replaced by a fictional character named Solomon Galkin, would eventually make it to Stageworks/Hudson, the decision to cancel the Theater J production set off a media buzz that started with local DC press and blog posts and reached its apotheosis in a story on NPR's All Things Considered in May. While media coverage of these events focused on Wiesel (was he overreacting?) and issues of artistic freedom (aren't playwrights free to write about public figures?), we might more properly ask what the incident and the attendant media fracas reflects about the role of Jewish theater in the promotion of Jewish identity and community.

Margolin is arguably the most important Jewish voice in America's current "alternative" theater scene. Though she has never had the crossover commercial hit that would bring her the name recognition of contemporaries like Tony Kushner and Lisa Kron, she has been widely lauded by her peers, including an OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence in Performance, the Helen Merrill Distinguished Playwright Award, and the Joseph Kesselring Prize for her 2005 play Three Seconds in the Key. Her works have been commissioned by the Jewish Museum, the Public Theater, and other theaters around the country, and she has lectured or taught at many colleges and universities, most notably Yale, where she has been adjunct associate professor for the past several years. Though only a handful of her works are explicitly about what it means to be Jewish, most of her creative output is autobiographical. And because Margolin proudly self-identifies as a "nerdy Jew," it is not difficult to read her entire corpus as a sustained investigation of Jewish identity, one driven by a passion for Judaism that is unapologetically quirky; in her 1996 solo piece O Wholly Night & Other Jewish Solecisms, for example, she compared the messiah to Gold Bond Medicated Powder, in that both promise exquisite relief of suffering. Yet as the New York Times noted of the performance, "For all her humor, Ms. Margolin has some serious reflections on the cost of being different from the majority, but she makes them deftly, sometimes silently; they linger long after the hour of smiles has ended."

Theater J, meanwhile, is one of the leading Jewish theaters in North America. Operating under the umbrella of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center with a mission to produce "thought-provoking, publicly engaged, personal, passionate and entertaining plays and musicals that celebrate the distinctive urban voice and social vision that are part of the Jewish cultural legacy," the company has developed a reputation for incubating new work by well-known playwrights such as Wendy Wasserstein and Richard Greenberg, and reviving classic plays of the Jewish American canon. So it was with no small anticipation that Jewish theater aficionados looked forward to Theater J's 2010–2011 season, which was scheduled to kick off with Imagining Madoff. When the production was nixed, some insiders wondered whether the theater had "lost its edge" by capitulating to pressure from a Jewish "establishment" fearful of offending those who regard Wiesel as a quasi-sacred figure. Others asked if Margolin had crossed the boundaries of good taste in her depiction of the man, quite literally adding insult to the injury he had already suffered from Madoff's crimes.

Margolin has repeatedly said that she meant no disrespect to Wiesel in her portrayal of the character of "Elie." She told the Washington Post that she chose Wiesel as a natural foil to Madoff because, "his name is synonymous with decency, morality, the struggle for human dignity and kindness, and in contrast to the most notorious financial criminal in the past 200 years. That's why he was there, and I felt I had treated his character with great respect— the respect that I genuinely have felt for him." Ironically, it was because of the playwright's respect for Wiesel that she had sent him an advance copy of the script, never imagining his negative reaction. Reading this original script, it is clear that the Wiesel character is not just a sympathetic figure, but one who clearly represents an ideal of Jewish ethics, an ideal that Madoff just as clearly fails to meet. This ideal is at once traditional and humanizing: Elie reads to Madoff from the Talmud and teaches him to lay tefillin, but he also likes scotch, baseball, and the occasional mild profanity. He repeatedly denies the saintly status that Madoff tries to ascribe to him, confessing moments of fear, lust, and other human frailties. Jewish morality, Margolin seems to suggest, is enhanced rather than diminished by the struggle to maintain it. By contrast, it is Madoff's desire for a clear and easy answer that has led him astray. In this sense, Imagining Madoff is less about What Elie Would Say to Bernie than about whether thinking critically about Jewishness can be understood as a demonstration of one's commitment to it.

How we answer this question is of crucial importance to all Jewish theaters, not just Theater J. The organizations and donors that support such theaters tend to do so out of a desire to promote Jewish identity. In its simplest form, this means producing works that depict and even celebrate Jewish culture: a new translation of The Dybbuk, for example, or Theodore Bikel's Sholem Aleichem: Laughter Through Tears. But Jewish theaters also promote yiddishkeit on the audience side, offering a communal space in which we can gather to consider and debate more challenging questions of Jewish identity. In this sense, the Jewish theater serves as a kind of secular yeshiva, a place of learned disagreement, in which our very disagreements are what unite us. The controversy surrounding Imagining Madoff simply calls our attention to this fact.

In the many public conversations about Margolin's play, the artistic merit of the piece was never in question. When the revised version premiered sans Elie, it received rave reviews. Laurence Klavan, writing in the Forward, called Imagining Madoff "provocative and compelling . . . 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." But it is the character of Solomon Galkin himself who reminds us that whatever one thinks of the actions taken by Wiesel, Margolin, or Theater J, Jewish morality is rarely so clear-cut. "I am a Jew," he says, "And Jews only ask questions; they don't provide answers."