Dear Deb Margolin: A Letter About ‘Imagining Madoff’

Will the real Skim Shady please stand up?

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Madoff
Jeremiah Kissel as Bernard Madoff in Deb Margolin's "Imagining Madoff." Photo: Jody Christopherson.

Dear Deb Margolin,

I’m addressing this letter to you and publishing it for a specific reason. So much theater criticism feels flat to me lately. Not that it lacks rigor: even in the parlous state of arts journalism, I can still find smart and insightful theater critics committed to engaging with artists and audiences. But for me, as a writer and a critic, the idea of composing a review in the traditional mode doesn’t feel very exciting. I’ve been searching for a new way to connect. This is my first effort at creating an epistolary review — a review in the form of a letter to one person connected to a production.

You may remember that The Clyde Fitch Report was a personal blog in 2010 when your playImagining Madoff, became a cause celebre. In an op-ed, I noted that Terry Teachout of The Wall Street Journal was appalled by the actions of the late Elie Wiesel with regard to your play and I wished to second his emotion. Wiesel was upset because, in your original version of Imagining Madoff, you used him, by name, as a character. Of course, the play was not about Wiesel but about Bernard Madoff, the investment manager who, through a 20-year-long Ponzi scheme, swindled thousands of people out of their wealth; one generally accepted estimate is that the total fraud came to $64.7 billion. Wiesel, arguably the most renowned Holocaust survivor in history, was simply a high-profile victim, and it stung: In 2009, The New York Times reported that the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost more than $15 million to Madoff’s scheme, and Wiesel and his wife lost their entire life savings, too. No wonder Wiesel called Madoff a “psychopath.” So Imagining Madoff aimed to ask the one question everybody wanted answered: How did he do it?

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I felt back then that you, as the playwright, got the short end of the stick. It really said something about your personal ethics that you even bothered to let Wiesel know about the play; it also said something about his character — or who he had become — that he threatened to sue not only you but Theatre J in Washington, DC, where a production was slated. As Teachout correctly noted, you didn’t need Wiesel’s legal permission or blessing to create a character called “Elie Wiesel.” So this was a story about freedom of expression; it galled me to think that a Holocaust survivor, of all people, could contemptuously dismiss the freedom of another writer. Chastened but unbowed, you reworked the play and it premiered at Stageworks/Hudson in 2010 and then ran at Theatre J, after all, in 2011. Now, in 2019, New Light Theater Project has mounted Imagining Madoff at 59E59 Theaters in NYC, where it runs through March 23.

The character you devised in lieu of Wiesel — a poet, Solomon Galkin (Gerry Bamman) — is marvelous; he’s more charming than Wiesel probably was, and certainly less encumbered by bitter baggage. If Wiesel’s most irrational fear was that you’d reveal him as a fool for losing his money to world’s greatest pre-Trump swindler, then Galkin is worth putting those fears to rest. And it’s ironic, too, because the shift in the play’s center of gravity is correct. Now the play properly centers on Madoff (Jeremiah Kissel), who is some piece of psychological work. We watch him pacing in his jail cell, angry at the world but unfocused and undirected about it — and it’s all understood by no one, least of all himself.

That you give Madoff lots of direct address is an audacious move. As staged by Jerry Heymann, the play has several cauterizing monologues that Kissel delivers like a sadistic captor giving his hostages (that is, the audience) a brutality treatment. So intense is Kissel, so well has he internalized your lines, that each time he ended one of those monologues, I sought succor in the idea that at least Madoff wasn’t a murderer. Because he could have been. You sense that it wouldn’t have taken much to get him to cross that line. So in lieu of Wiesel, we get a poet. In lieu of violence, we get amorality.

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I also have a question. There’s that third character on stage — a Secretary (Jenny Allen), who, in her solo scenes, answers inferred questions about Madoff from a witness stand. Is it your intention to create a Rashomon of Wall Street? Again, there’s Madoff pacing his cell like a caged animal, railing at the world and consumed by inexplicable grudges; and then there’s the Secretary, recalling how unerringly sweet and thoughtful Madoff could be. How do you write an enigma?

It also struck me that imagining Madoff is all we can do: he entered a guilty plea, received a 150-year sentence, and footage of the man beyond street fights with paparazzi is scarce. Madoff has given interviews from prison, but very few, and neither cameras nor recording devices were allowed. You can watch Barbara Walters talk about interviewing him, but it’s a hard thing to actually see the man. Then I found this:

Will the real Skim Shady please stand up, please stand up? Perhaps for you this play is as much a search for the undiscoverable, unknowable Madoff as it is for the rest of us. This is why Galkin, and Bamman’s fine performance, offers such a balm. You’re canny not to give us too much background on Galkin: If more of your 90-minute one-act had focused on his renown, you’d have tipped the scales once more away from your titular topic, in which case you might as well have fought to keep Wiesel on stage.

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Galkin is a philosopher-king and, yes, probably just foolish enough to give Madoff all of his money — which is just what the character wants to do. The way you delineate his scenes with Madoff capture vey well their older-father/younger-son archetypes, and the result is wonderful dramatic tension. Especially so when Madoff, in a surprising and humanizing twist, refuses to take Galkin’s money. In fact, Madoff wants to confess his monumental thievery to Galkin but can’t bring himself to do it; he skirts by and shimmies against and sidles up to the truth, but he’s repelled by it each time. That Galkin hasn’t a clue as to who Madoff really is means that all of us are imagining Madoff, and that the truth is frightening as well as fungible.

I wonder, though, why you threw Madoff a bone, why you wanted to show him as human. By what right would Madoff — yours or the real one — commit an act of self-sacrifice on an altar of redemption?

Or maybe it doesn’t matter anymore. After all, Madoff turns 81 next month; young people entering college this fall were seven or eight when the scandal broke. Still, for those of us who, when thinking of the Holocaust, like to quote George Santayana (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), there is the fact that as the memory of the Madoff mess fades from view, we can only imagine the next cataclysmic white-collar crime. For this reason, let’s hope that Imagining Madoff will receive more productions, and will generate more letters like this one.

Sincerely,

Leonard Jacobs