‘Imagining Madoff’

‘Imagining Madoff’

Montvale playwright looks at the painful story of Bernie Madoff and the Jews he swindled

Playwright Deb Margolin of Montvale with actor Jeremiah Kissel, who plays Bernie Madoff in “Imagining Madoff.” (Jody Christopherson)
Playwright Deb Margolin of Montvale with actor Jeremiah Kissel, who plays Bernie Madoff in “Imagining Madoff.” (Jody Christopherson)

When Deb Margolin of Montvale first wrote “Imagining Madoff,” she never imagined the brouhaha it would engender.

The award-winning playwright and performance artist certainly knows her way around politics. Her often groundbreaking work with Split Britches, the feminist political theater group she co-founded in the early 1980s, prepared her for almost anything.

But this?

It all began in 2009, when Ms. Margolin was asked to write a Bernie Madoff monologue for a downtown performance artist. She did it — and that whet her appetite for further exploration of the subject.

“I’m a dramatist, and I wondered how compelling it would be to place two men, both of them renowned for completely opposite sets of values, in the same room,” Ms. Margolin, 65, said in a telephone interview with the Jewish Standard. “It’s the stuff of drama.”

Thus was born a play that paired Madoff with Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

The decision was both logical and inspired. Wiesel was a tzadik, a righteous and gentle human being, a Holocaust survivor and venerated author and memoirist who also had the misfortune to place his savings and the finances of his charitable foundation in Madoff’s hands. Wiesel lost everything.

“I felt uniquely privileged to be able to explore this because these were two Jewish men,” Ms. Margolin said. “Madoff didn’t need the money. He had money. It was about something else, some emptiness.

“There was something about it I found intriguing I wanted to explore. Because he was Jewish, I thought there is something that connects us. I felt I had the right sinews to explore this.”

But after she completed her work, Ms. Margolin hit a roadblock. Mr. Wiesel refused to let the play go forward with him as a character.

“That’s the painful thing,” she said. “I sent him the play at the request of the producer, with a very respectful letter, explaining who I was, a Jewish playwright. He sent back word that he thought it obscene and defamatory. As you can see, he went from step one to step three.

“I would never have sent a man of his stature a document that was obscene and inflammatory,” Ms. Margolin said.

Mr. Wiesel made no offer to mediate or request for changes. He just said no.

Ms. Margolin was not happy with the decision. “I think if we fail to investigate people like Madoff, we do so at our peril,” she said. “I felt that the original character of [Wiesel] was treated with the utmost respect.”

Ms. Margolin never discovered what Wiesel’s objections were. She posits that “it made him very uncomfortable to be juxtaposed with Madoff.”

Whatever the reason, Ms. Margolin set to making changes. To replace Wiesel, she created the character of Solomon Galkin, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor, a poet and his synagogue’s treasurer, who ignored the warning signs and invested the shul’s nest egg with the financier.

Harry Markopolus, a security executive industry executive, made many well-publicized reports to the SEC suggesting that Madoff’s fund was a Ponzi scheme. “But no one was listening to him,” Ms. Margolin said. “No one believed him.” Least of all Jewish investors, who refused to consider that a Jew would rip off other Jews, including Holocaust survivors such as Wiesel.

In the play, Solomon begs Madoff to invest his personal savings along with the synagogue’s. “Madoff worked the Jewish community tirelessly,” Ms. Margolin said. “I’m not saying Jews were the only people he ripped off, but he worked that angle, and that’s the reason Solomon wants to invest his money with another Jew.”

Ms. Margolin did not research Madoff — hence the play’s title — but she did study Jewish ritual. As in many of her more than 30 productions, her Jewishness is infused throughout the play. That’s what she researched.

She spent time “pouring through talmudic text books of important rabbis looking for appropriate quotes,” she said. “I read and I read.”

Ms. Margolin grew up in Westchester County, the middle of three daughters born to two first-generation Americans. “All four of my grandparents came from Russia,” she said.

Hers was “not an observant, but a passionately cultural Jewish household. I went to a Yiddish day school. I went to Hebrew school. I was a bat mitzvah, because I wanted to be.” Her older sister was not, she added. “My parents spoke Yiddish in the house when there was something they didn’t want us to know.

“Of course my Jewish identity influences a lot of my work, but I’m just in love with and curious about humanity, and where it resides in all different kinds of people.”

Even in Bernie Madoff.

“Imagining Madoff” has received critical praise around the country and now is at the 59E59 Theater (unsurprisingly, at 59 E. 59th St.) in Manhattan through March 23.

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